Minamata review: the story of a triumph of photojournalism

By Roshan Chandy

JOHNNY Depp’s latest film is the story of Minamata Disease which was discovered in Minamata, Japan in 1956.

Depp here is the inquisitive photographer Eugene W. Smith who uncovered the cover-up around the poisoning.

I’ve always thought Depp was a true chameleon in every sense of the word.

He has the ability to shapeshift into any part and change his appearance depending on the role. He did that in Edward Scissorhands, he did that in Sweeney Todd, he did that in Ed Wood. Burton knows how to channel his chameleon charm and shape-shifting disappearances.

Even by Depp standards, he is unrecognisable with his grey beard and hair covering up his movie star perfection and instantly recognisable tan.

It’s a very minimalist performance that doesn’t require a lot of dialogue in his trademark Kentucky accent. Through his awkward gait and debilitating stutter, he lives, talks and breathes like Eugene Smith. It’s as if the man is in the room with us.

He gets to mouth lines like “I’m the single greatest photographer Life Magazine has ever had” only for Bill Nighy to say “you’re the most impossible photographer Life has ever had.”

That line I felt was more a line expressing Depp’s impossible status as one of the most fascinating and eccentric men to ever appear on the big screen. He really is a thinking man’s movie star.

“The cover-up is going to be more expensive than the story itself,” he says and he’s right.

The figures are shocking and will get the liberally inflamed riled up and ready for action. You’ll cry for the deceased, you’ll pray for the living and you’ll froth at the mouth for those responsible.

This is a movie about a photographer and does feature some breathtakingly beautiful photos. He takes photos in black and white, with a tinge of infrared and a touch of colour. The photo sequences have an art to them that’s a lot like watching Andy Warhol; a sense that this could almost be a really expensive music video.

Eugene Smith’s work was integral in raising awareness of Minamata Disease and the cover-up and it’s essential this film was made and that people watch it so more awareness is raised of this little-known condition.

Then there’s the scenery which is 1950s Japan. And, boy, does it look beautiful. You really get the sense you’re living in another country and this film will crave you visiting Japan with a beat in your heart and a passion for the environment.

He’s better here than he has been in years – it’s a real skin-changing performance even by Depp’s standards where he just disappears into the part and you forget you’re watching the actor and just see the person.

In this movie, you’ll just see Eugene Smith and not see Johnny Depp. That’s the mark of a great actor.

Image: Infinitum Nihil/Metalwork Pictures/HanWay Films

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