Minami and Johnny Depp in Minamata. Image courtesy Berlin Film Festival

MA15+, 115 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury





Stirring movies about corporate crimes and negligence in public health have appeared from time to time with outsize stars in key roles. It’s a thought to keep in mind for this new film starring Johnny Depp in the unlikely role of real-life, pioneering photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith.

If you’re not in the know, Smith is one of the most important American photographers in the development of the photo essay. Famous for raw, gritty and beautiful images that told a tough story.

Documentary may the preferred genre for stories about scandalous company behaviour, the merchants of doubt who aid and abet, and the governments who help cover up. But it doesn’t have to be the way to go for impact.

The Insider with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe told the story of a whistleblower in the tobacco industry who tried to go public with important health data on the impact of smoking.

Julia Roberts starred in Erin Brockovich. Meryl Streep with Cher in Silkwood. Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins in the recent Dark Waters. A star can bring a narrative about gross injustice home.

Casting an actor mired in law suits was perhaps a gamble, but the huge scandal about criminal corporate behaviour is a far greater story than that

So, a pirate of the Caribbean turning up in a remote Japanese fishing village may not be so bizarre, particularly when he is in such heavy disguise. The familiar Depp voice and certain mannerisms remain, though.

In Minamata, Depp, surely one of the dreamiest male stars, has adopted a look not unlike the real-life subject. American photojournalist Gene Smith had a pronounced broad forehead, thick, unruly hair and beard, and he wore glasses.

His last assignment was to Minamata, a fishing village in Japan run by Chisso Corporation, which is still operating under a slightly different name.

The tough American, a veteran war photographer, was working for Life magazine when approached to document the suffering in Minamata and help convey it to the world.

When he heard about the environmental disaster in Japan, he already had famous portfolios. Developed while a photographer on the ground in the Pacific in World War Two, while visiting humanitarian doctor, Albert Schweitzer, in Africa, and captured in the grim industrial sites in Pittsburgh, USA.

Minamata would be his last assignment.

The engaging actor, Bill Nighy, appears as Smith’s boss at Life magazine, Robert Hayes, also a real character. Against type, it’s a different role for Bill, but he looks comfortable in it.

Early in the 1970s, Smith relocated with his American partner, Aileen Mioko (Minami, a sweet presence), to Minamata village to document what was happening and tell the world.

Chisso Corporation had been pouring mercury in wastewater from its plant into the sea around Minamata from 1932. Many villagers had succumbed to a neurological disease that was known as ‘dancing cat disease’ and eventually became known as Minamata disease.  The horrific symptoms of the condition could begin in the womb.

Smith’s photo-essay documenting the victims of Minamata eventually became a sensation. In particular the iconic black-and-white image of Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath. Mighty Chisso was compelled to compensate, and the company president knelt in a public apology. Extraordinary, but apparently consistent with Japanese traditions of public accountability.

The character Depp inhabits, an aging, jazz-loving hipster holed up in a New York loft, is not entirely unfamiliar 

This is the second feature from writer-director Andrew Levitas, who is a New York-based actor and artist across multiple platforms. Add university professor, actor, and environmental philanthropist and you get the full picture.

The character that Depp inhabits does not feel entirely unfamiliar. An aging, jazz-loving hipster holed up in a darkroom in a New York loft with his addictions. He was awash with whiskey, tobacco and amphetamines, and had to deal with the PTSD that was the result of his wartime experience.

A highly regarded doco on Minamata was made by Noriaki Tsuchimoto in Japan in 1971. It was called Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Is the terrible saga an American story to tell, complete with Americans to the rescue and all of that? It’s possible to argue this point, but Smith suffered in Minamata too. For his ‘interference’, he was beaten up by the yakuza who Chisso used to protect its interests in the village.

Casting Johnny Depp, still mired in law suits with his former wife, was perhaps a gamble. Yet the huge Minamata story about corporate avoidance of civic responsibility is a far greater story than that.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 June 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes