Dir: Andrew Levitas. Starring: Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami Hinase, Bill Nighy. TBC cert, 115 mins
It is Johnny Depp but not as we know him. In Minamata (which premiered at the Berlin Festival on Friday evening with Depp in attendance), the Pirates of the Caribbean star plays W Eugene Smith, the feted Life magazine photographer. During the early 1970s, Smith, at a very low ebb in his career, travelled to the Japanese city of Minamata. He went there to chronicle the suffering of the local people who had experienced extreme health problems because of mercury pumped into the water by the giant Chisso Corporation. Smith took some of his most celebrated pictures in Japan, including Tomoko in her Bath, a haunting image of a Madonna-like mother tending to her deformed daughter.
We first encounter Smith here in New York. He is a grizzled and dishevelled figured, bearded, greying and bespectacled, and rarely seen without his trademark beret. He is in physical pain, his kids won’t speak to him and he’s broke. Full of self-pity, Smith likes to drown himself in alcohol. He has a difficult relationship with the embattled Life magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy putting on an American accent), who reveres his work but despairs of his obnoxious personality.
Depp’s portrayal of Smith is lively and nuanced. The movie star reminds us that he is a talented character actor with a wide range. His freewheeling performance suggests the photographer saw himself as a jazz musician, with a camera instead of a saxophone. However, writer-director Andrew Levitas indulges his lead actor, sometimes holding scenes for too long as the photographer gets extravagantly drunk or struggles to cope with his near-permanent hangovers. Smith is so eccentric that it wouldn’t take very much to turn him into one of those comic characters from the Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield shows that Depp so admires.
The other trouble about Minamata is that the filmmakers never seem sure whether they are making a drama about industrial pollution or a biopic of an artist as he rediscovers his purpose in life. One moment, the focus will be on Smith’s love life, and his burgeoning romance with Aileen Mioko (Minami Hinase), the woman who helped lured him to Japan. The next, we will be in a hospital, looking at victims of the poisoning.
When Smith first arrives in Japan, he is far more interested in whisky, Sake and money than in getting the photographs that Life magazine needs. The script refers several times to his children, from whom he is estranged. He is a burnt-out case. At one stage, he explains to his hosts that Native Americans believe that when they have their photographs taken, they lose part of their soul. “The fine print is that it can also take a piece of the photographer’s soul,” he explains his own lack of empathy and energy.
Inevitably, Smith changes. As he witnesses the suffering and injustice around him, he rediscovers his mojo. In spite of intimidation and harassment from the industrialists and their heavies, he takes more of those astonishing images which made his reputation.
The film is certainly topical. As Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters and the contaminated water scandal in Flint, Michigan, have reminded us recently, lives are still being ruined by industrial pollution. The storytelling here, though, becomes increasingly glib and predictable. As good triumphs, at least temporarily, and the protests by committed local people force the big bad industrial corporation to acknowledge its wrong doing, the tension seeps out of the drama.
There are touching moments along the way, most notably when Smith teaches a severely disabled local boy the rudiments of photography. Minamata makes inventive use of Smith’s archive and recreates the image of Tomoko in her Bath in poignant fashion. Depp’s performance, which moves between quiet introspection and extreme flamboyance, stops matters from becoming too earnest or self-righteous. Nonetheless, Minamata pulls in contradictory directions. It can’t work out whether out whether it’s a crusading social drama or the story of a troubled artist’s redemption. The result is a film that neither engages nor moves the viewer in the way that might have been expected.