Depp shines as award-winning Life photo-journalist 

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A look at Minamata [MA15+]

I’m not a great fan of Johnny Depp so I never had any intention of ever watching his Pirates of the Caribbean extravaganzas. And of course there was the headline personal drama when he and his then partner Amber Heard illegally brought two Yorkshire terrier dogs into Australia in October 2015.

All that aside, I have to say he does a great job in his latest movie outing playing the great 20th century photo-journalist W Eugene Smith. 

Smith was one of Life magazine’s most outstanding contributors although by the early 1970s he’d become a reclusive drunkard, separated from his wife and family and living alone in a Manhattan loft. When Smith is reluctantly dragged out of his ‘retirement’ by Japanese activist Aileen (Minami Hinase) to shoot scenes around the polluted water of the southern fishing villages in her home country Smith fires up somewhat. The sea, shellfish and fish in Aileen’s village have been polluted from thes mercury dumped in the sea by the nearby Chisso Fertilizers plant.

And so the villagers of all ages have been severely affected – in many cases, completely disfigured – from eating the fish from the mecury-contaminated seawater in their inlet.

We don’t see all that much of Depp’s features even in the close-ups so it’s almost impossible to make out his facial emotions. He’s bearded and wears glasses and a black beret for 90 per cent of the movie’s running length. But naturally he’s very, very distressed when guards from the fertiliser plant arrive and burn down his darkroom shack.

Smith had emphasised to his Japanese hosts that he doesn’t even consider colour photographs. All his striking images are in black and white. He’d trained Aileen in developing his amazing prints with his ultimate final, world-wide phenomenon entitled Tomoko Uemara In Her Bath – where she’s holding her severely disabled daughter – the most notable of his published works.

Smith’s relationship with Life’s managing editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) is an on-the-edge situation even though Hayes is acutely aware of his photographer’s amazing skills. Depp plays this part of his role extremely well. From time to time he loses his cool in Hayes’ office but is fortunate to have senior female executives backing him as Smith’s skills are well known.

It’s when he and Aileen reach the Japanese fishing village that the plot really warms up. Smith is taken on a tour of the Chisso plant by the managing director and even offered a bribe of $50,000 (a sizeable sum back in the early Seventies) to pack up and go back home. Not surprisingly the ace photographer scornfully rejects the offer.

It’s from that early point on that the harassment and eventually actual physical beatings increase in intensity. Along with the burning-down of his darkroom. Smith manages to cope early on and forms a touching relationship with a disabled and disfigured Japanese teenage boy. He teaches him to steady a camera in his trembling hands, point the camera at his subject and snap the picture. But as the harassment and intimidation increase in scale the ace photographer starts to think he should return to the USA.

Aileen and her village activists convince him otherwise. They sneak into the town’s hospital, rifle through office documents and escape via the door of a downstairs storeroom. The Chisso heavies aren’t thrown off Smith’s case for long and we eventually find out he passed away back in the USA, aged only 59, from massive strokes probably brought on by complications from the beatings he suffered in Japan.

As well as informing us about Smith’s and Aileen’s later lives the end credits also list some of the world’s worst recent catastrophes. Naturally the Chernobyl, India’s Bhopal and the US’s Three-Mile Island nuclear meltdown disasters are three tragedies which get significant mentions.

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