Whatever you think of him, Johnny Depp acts here with grace and grit

M, 115 minutes

For those of a certain age, the word “Minamata” may evoke an immediate and jolting memory – a series of photographs of the bent bodies and staring faces of children born with gross deformities from mercury poisoning in a fishing village in southern Japan.

Johnny Depp as the American photographer W. Eugene Smith and Japanese actress Minami as Aileen.Credit:

The exposure of their plight by American photographer W. Eugene Smith is one of the great stories in the history of documentary photography. Smith and his Japanese-American assistant Aileen (who became his wife) lived in the village for two years, from 1971 to 1973, during a campaign for justice by the families.

The company, Chisso Fertiliser, fought hard and dirty to avoid responsibility. Smith’s photographs, when published in Life magazine in 1972, turned the tide.

That story would have scared any producer, even with its David and Goliath dramatic structure: you wanna make a movie about deformed children? In the end, the film has been patched together from disparate funders, and its non-mainstream backing may have helped it retain a certain artistic integrity.

It’s an unconventional take on the western: an ageing gunfighter (with cameras instead of guns) arrives in a town full of trouble. The bad guys pick the wrong guy to beat up. He doesn’t believe in anything any more – which makes him dangerous. The fight takes its toll on both the reluctant hero and the village. Change it to swords and you have Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 take on the western. Add an unhappy kid with bent fingers and you have a cousin of Shane.

Whatever one thinks of Johnny Depp – and he is doing a great job of alienating his fans – this performance is full of grace and grit. No doubt he relates to aspects of the character. Gene Smith was a famously grumpy photographer even before Minamata. He had been blown up covering the Pacific war; his recovery, through a series of operations, took two years. He more or less invented the photographic essay after the war, and he fought with most of his editors and colleagues when they disappointed him, or he them. By the late 1960s, he had left his wife and children to live in a New York loft, photographing the streets through peepholes in blacked-out windows rather than going outside.

That’s where he’s living, in a haze of alcohol, cynicism and painkillers, when a beautiful young Japanese translator named Aileen (Minami) demands that he rejoin the human race: you must come to Minamata, the people need you. His editor at Life, played with weary exasperation by Bill Nighy, agrees to the trip – thinking it might be Smith’s last.

It’s an unconventional take on the western: an ageing gunfighter (with cameras instead of guns) arrives in a town full of trouble.

The film does not quite move in conventional steps, and when it does, they aren’t always convincing, but that’s to its advantage. It makes it feel less slick. Once in the fishing village, Smith realises that no one wants to be photographed. They especially don’t want him to photograph their sick children. That turns the film into an examination of the role of still photography in the 20th century up to this point, and the idea that its primacy was coming to an end.

Nighy’s character is trying to keep Life magazine afloat against the new media forms – particularly television – that show the world in moving images and colour. Eugene Smith’s form of genius – black-and-white and 35mm – was on the way out. Minamata becomes, in that light, not just his last hurrah but one of the last great milestones of the silver nitrate world. The fact that the director, Andrew Levitas, has built an international career melding sculpture and photography might explain his attraction to this story, and the reason it has some layers.

Levitas recognises the power of a single photograph in the structure, which starts where it means to end. The Minamata photographs are famous for one particular image, the heart-breaking portrait of a woman bathing her frail, bent-limbed child in a traditional Japanese bath. It is a portrait of great tenderness and love, but it’s also a picture of a photographer’s rage. The film becomes, at least below the surface, an explanation of the trust that was required to make that image. And the betrayal of trust that required him to make it in the first place.

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