The Daily Telegraph - The Telegraph Magazine
‘Depp’s performance feels sketchy – we’ve seen him run the gamut of tortured artist/addict clichés so many times before’
The film often has bizarrely wrong-headed notions of where the camera ought to be
Minamata (15 cert, 115 mins)
Johnny Depp’s persistence in lending his clout to independent projects has been one of his career’s saving graces. Much more often than a Streep, a Hanks or a Washington, he has ventured off the beaten track between studio gigs, expanding his range with the likes of Jim Jarmusch’s zonked western Dead Man (1995), donning drag for Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (2000) or collaborating a couple of times with the risk-taking Terry Gilliam.
On paper, Minamata seems just the kind of small, high-minded film to help rebuild his credibility. Depp’s fascination with the American photographer W Eugene Smith, who was celebrated for pioneering the art of the editorial photostory, led him to develop this biopic with his own production company and bring producer-turned-director Andrew Levitas on board. It was shot back in early 2019, mid libel proceedings, and premiered to fairly muted fanfare at the Berlin film festival last February, just before Covid brought the industry to a standstill.
If only the project didn’t smack so baldly of self-glorification. The career of Smith, one of the most important lensmen of the late 20th century, is thoroughly worth exploring, but there must be better guides to his life story than this.
Often sporting a straggly grey beard, liver spots and a beret, Depp plays the Kansasborn Smith in one telescoped period of his life, 1971-2, when he travelled to Japan to document the horrific effects of mercury poisoning because of heavy metal dumping by the Chisso Corporation. Minamata is both the name of the fishing village where Smith and his future wife Aileen (Minami Hinase), a Japanese-american activist, observed the crisis, and also the name given to the disease itself, a neurological epidemic with a range ofsymptomsfrommuscleparalysistoblindness, insanity and death.
Smith’s black-and-white photographs of the victims, with their gaunt, hollowed ribcages and clutching hands, are unforgettably harrowing, and their publication in a LIFE magazine photoessay not only drew global outrage, but significantly bolstered the drive to claim compensation from the culpable factory owners.
The film isn’t a write-off. Well-handled, it could have had the sober dramatic voltage of something like Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters. The problems are of style, focus and intent. Levitas has shaped the story to flatter Smith with a fairly groan-worthy redemption arc – he’s a burnt-out case at the start, a boozy wreck the film lavishes with a Hemingwayesque tragic glamour. There’s only one shot of Depp looking terminally depressed in said beret, reclining on a chaise longue to Thelonious Monk while knocking back drinks in his elaborately bohemian studio-apartmentcum-darkroom, but it’s one too many.
Added to this is the hectoring colour palette, which dives into red darkroom filters whenever it wants contrast. The film is altogether too fond of nasty blue gels, pointless shots from the rafters and traumatising Smith – who sustained terrible burns from mortar fire during the Battle of Okinawa – with montages of his own war photography. Even after he’s brutally attacked by Chisso employees, who partially wrecked his eyesight, the film lingers on his bandages with rock-star awe, making a cool spectacle of his battle scars. For a film about photography, it often has bizarrely wrong-headed notions of where the camera ought to be.
Even Ryuichi Sakamoto, such a theoretically perfect composer for this job, struggles to help the cause – or rather, his score rises to a pitch of agony that feels punishingly overlaid, trying to do too much work the images simply don’t support.
Bill Nighy, as Smith’s exasperated editor in New York, gets a little more to chew on than Hiroyuki Sanada, who’s thrown scraps as a justice-seeker at the Chisso gates. And Depp’s performance feels pretty sketchy. We’ve seen him run the gamut of tortured artist/ addict clichés so many times before – in The Libertine, The Rum Diary and even Secret Window – that this portrait hardly stands out.
Nothing in Minamata can lessen the power of Smith’s most famous picture, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath –a mother/daughter image burning with an extraordinary intensity of love and sorrow. But nothing here illuminates it much, either.
Out on 13 August