Minamata: Review

By Lee Russell Wilkes

Minamata (2020) tells the true story of mercury poisoning in a Japanese fishing community and the celebrated photographer that went to cover the story for Life magazine.

This is the story of Eugene Smith, a man struggling with his own celebrated history as a war photographer and his obsessive reputation. In the 1950s, he went on assignment to photograph Pittsburgh for a simple photo-story. He should have stayed two to three weeks – he produced upwards of 11,000 images in his first stay. He later returned to shoot 6000 more.

The defining image of his Minamata work Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath is regarded by many as his masterpiece – high contrast black and white with a subject that defies words – body horror and parental love expressed with a command of light not seen outside of the Dutch masters.

In a film with photography at its core, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme deserves much praise for his work here. His colour palette through the film perfectly captures the cold Japanese weather. The temperature is palpable. The camera work is superb – his use of depth of field in several scenes is masterful. Yes, I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder. Smith’s work is restaged flawlessly and integrated into the film’s tone with obvious cinematic skill.

The cast of mostly Japanese actors are magnificent. The makeup and prosthetics are stunning. You haven’t seen a film of this tone done this well since Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

Several moments stand out – Smith’s interactions with the disabled youth he gives his camera to, the factory manager attempting to bribe Smith and Smith’s advice to Masako Matsumura (Akiko Iwase) as she comes to terms with the horror of the people’s situation. If you need any reminding of how good Depp really is, this is the scene.

The elephant in the room, for some, is the great Mr Depp himself. This film is a statement, deliberately so, as his company produces. You need reminding what made the man an icon? The younger readers, who only know his post-Jack Sparrow pre-Amber Heard period, might beg my forgiveness for ever having doubted his talent. Sure, mega-stardom has meant he has made his fair share of terrible films in the last two decades but then again, who hasn’t fallen into that trap?

In calmer times, this Andrew Levinas’ film would be a worthy contender for Best Picture and Best Actor. It’s quiet release into the world shows just how hard a sell this is in 2021 with both Depp and a white saviour story. Anyone triggered by this exercise in humanism is missing something at their core.

Minamata, flowing according to the whims of the giant magnet, is out in the world now.

See more of Smith’s work here, here and here.

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