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Review: Minamata – “Powerful and heartbreaking”

Directed by Andrew Levitas, Minimata tells the true story of W. Eugene Smith, a famous American photographer who travelled to Japan in 1971 to report on the effects of mercury poisoning on the citizens of Minamata, Kumamoto.

New York, 1971. Following his celebrated days as one of the most revered photojournalists of World War II, W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) has become a recluse, disconnected from society and his career. But a secret commission from Life magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) sends him to the Japanese coastal city of Minamata, which has been ravaged by mercury poisoning; the result of decades of gross industrial negligence by the country’s Chisso Corporation. There, Smith immerses himself in the community, documenting their efforts to live with Minamata Disease and their passionate campaign to achieve recognition from Chisso and the Japanese government. Armed with only his trusted camera, Smith’s images from the toxic village give the disaster a heartbreaking human dimension, and his initial assignment turns into a life-changing experience.

Johnny Depp stars as Smith and gives one of his most understated yet powerful performances in a while. He is joined by Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami, Jun Kunimura, Ryo Kase, Tadanobu Asano, Bill Nighy and Katherine Jenkins.

We join Smith as he is selling off his belongings to raise money to pass on to his children. He drinks too much and sleeps too little due to the flashbacks and dreams he has from being a war correspondent. They use real-life photos of Smith to show his dreams to great effect. Depp does a lot by doing very little. A glance, a pause, a shake of the head takes us into the space of Smith and his discomfort of the world and those around him. As he meets the residents of Minamata and the terrible tragedy of those affected by the mercury poisoning he reconnects with people and the world at large.

It is truly devastating to see the effect of mercury poisoning, yet the film makes a point of showing the character of those living with it. The scenes with the young man who takes Smith’s camera are just wonderful and his response to being treated as just a person by Smith did make me smile. There are many such moments throughout the film and, being a father myself, it truly moved me. Knowing that it all happened and that people are still having to live with the effects is devastating.

Seeing the town and the residents through the eyes of Smith helps bring us into that world, but as the film moves on Levitas is not afraid to move away from Depp and focus on the residents of the town as they protest at the Chisso factory and at the share-holders meeting.

Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme makes sure the film is beautifully shot, with many scenes evoking the photography of Smith. The use of music and songs throughout the film is extremely effective, but they also know when to just go with silence to make moments really hit hard.

Seeing the shooting of the famous Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath photo brings everything together in perfect clarity.

This is an important, powerful and heartbreaking film. It truly beggars belief that companies would rather save money by dumping poisonous waste directly into the environment rather than disposing of it safely.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Aileen Mioko Smith and Eugene Smith. It will be released by Vertigo Releasing in the UK and Ireland on 13 August 2021.

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