The title refers to a coastal town in Japan, where fishermen brought home their catch unaware that they were bringing mercury poisoning to their dinner tables, and their families, a human catastrophe, a man-made ecological disaster. That’s a tough subject to bring to a mainstream audience, although films as diverse as Erin Brockovich and Dark Waters have made a decent fist of it with the help of some star power. For Minamata, director Andrew Levitas wins a watch in the form of Johnny Depp, perhaps glad to see the back of his Disney heyday, and happy to immerse himself in the kind of star turn that brings this drama to life.
Eugene Smith is a name that most photography fans will recognise for such noted snaps as the famous Dewey Defeats Truman picture, or the County Doctor photo-essay that founded a genre. But by 1971, Smith was something of a mess, a wayward talent without a subject to address. Played by Depp, Smith relishes his vices in the form of cigarettes and amphetamines, but his bad habits come under threat when he agrees to travel to Japan and document the on-going story in Minamata. The Cisso corporation has been putting profits before people for several decades by the time Smith arrives, and despite many substantial obstacles and set-backs, Smith is determined not to let Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) his editor at Life magazine down…
Minamata plays and wins at the ‘white saviour’ game; yes, Smith comes to the rescue of a local community, but David Kessler’s script plays down the protagonist’s involvement with the struggle in the second half of the film. In the first half, there’s some crowd-pleasing moments, notably when Smith makes a daring escape from a hospital on a stretcher, but such derring-do becomes less of a factor as the Japanese community rise up to take on their corporate oppressor, and Smith plays a small but crucial role in capturing their cause on film, rather than leading it himself. That’s an important distinction, and one that puts Minamata in an elevated position as a drama; despite an engaging surface, the film never settles for sloganeering and easy victories, and even the end-titles are a bitter-sweet read.
The subject is important, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Depp is the draw here, and he doesn’t let the side down. It’s not make-up or prosthetics that make Smith a convincing character, it’s Depp’s skill; a key line of dialogue mentions that the great photographer does not carry any pictures of his own kids, and Depp fashions something compelling and redemptive about Smith’s search for a comprehensible truth that he can capture through the lens. Released yesterday in the UK, Minamata has not yet been distributed in the largest market of the US, and that’s a scandal in itself; this is a smart, moving film illuminated by a big star performance, and one might hope that the public won’t allow such a stirring film to be censured for political convenience.
MINAMATA is in UK cinemas and on digital now (Aug 2021).
Thanks to Vertigo and Premier for access.