Minamata

Aileen and W Eugene Smith

From its title right through to its last gasp, Minamata insists that it isn’t about the photographer W Eugene Smith. But it is.

Smith was a photographer who’d distinguished himself in the Second World War and then returned to lay down many of the ground rules of photojournalism at Life magazine, he and it in a creative lockstep from the 1940s till the 1970s, when it ceased weekly publication and he went on to the great darkroom in the sky.

The film picks up Smith at the end of his career in 1971: old, drunk, broke, selling off his gear to pay his rent and barely able to command the attention of Life magazine editor Robert Hayes, who tolerates Smith on account of his reputation as one of the great figures of modern-day American photography.

Then one day, in classic redemptive style, Smith is handed a chance of “one more shot” by a young Japanese woman who’s arranged an interview with him under false pretences. She’s not there to get an endorsment for Fuji colour film – Smith only takes black and white pictures anyway and is mystified he ever agreed to the meeting, if he did – instead she’s there to talk Smith into coming to Japan to take photographs of the people of the Minimata bay area, who are plagued by diseases of the central nervous system.

These are caused, the locals are convinced, by the chemical waste being pumped into the local water courses by the Chisso Corporation. Chisso refuses to acknowledge even that there’s a problem, though the effects – children born with deformities, adults succumbing to contorting spasms – extend even to animals, hence one of the syndrome’s nicknames, Dancing Cat Disease (“dancing” being quite the euphemism, as actual archive footage of a cat contorted into hideous shapes shows).

The toxic chemical in question turned out to be mercury, a bioaccumulant, but no one knew that at the time. What they did know was that the company, responsible for the ongoing pollution, was staying tight-lipped while the situation got steadily worse.

Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy
Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy


Smith arrives in Japan, to find activists picketing the plant and organising, and he goes to work, while Chisso’s president keeps a wary eye on the American blow-in and prepares for foul play.

Three stories develop – of corporate malfeasance, environmental disaster and personal redemption – carefully woven together as if by a parent trying not to admit that one child (Smith) is the favourite. It’s a strangely old fashioned movie, in many ways, reminiscent of 1979’s The China Syndrome or 2000’s Erin Brockovich, and director and co-writer Andrew Levitas is comfortable enough with that notion to use dramatic compression (he’s probably making odd incidents up, in other words) to get across points that would simply bog down the narrative otherwise, like when Smith almost accidentally finds a dossier that handily explains the extent of the company’s guilt.

It’s a bearded, grey-haired, chunky Johnny Depp playing Smith, the film as much a redemption for him as for his character. He’s good. Very good. There’s the odd Deppish Mannerism – he’ll fill whole movies with these if the wind is coming from the wrong direction – but most of them he catches on the way out and repurposes into something Smith might do – a drunken mumble, maybe.

The adjacently named Japanese actor Minami plays redeeming angel Aileen, a woman who treats Smith like a child and will countenance no bullshit, but sweetly. Bill Nighy makes a decent fist of the American accent (mostly) and of playing Hayes, an old school editor of the All the President’s Men variety, and singer Katherine Jenkins makes her acting debut as one of his editorial team. Odd casting, both of them, but effective. And Kiroyuki Sanada does what he can with an underwritten role as the Japanese activist who’s been trying to hold Chisso’s feet to the fire.

It’s a well-upholstered Hollywood sedan of a movie, with a classic three act structure working hard to avoid the “white saviour” tag, shot by DP Benoît Delhomme with an eye on classic photographic composition – so often on the thirds – and with a soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto that’s particularly good at the redemptive end of the drama.

And there is plenty of redemption being shared out. Even Chisso boss Junichi Nojima (Jun Kunimura) gets some. He’s less your scheming megacorp master villain than a man led astray by company loyalty. Whether the film can redeem Depp – those wife beater allegations were swirling when Minamata was slated to debut – remains to be seen.





Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Choose to Carry the Burden of Courage. Pictures and words by W Eugene Smith and Aileen M Smith. Buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Salting the Battlefield

Bill Nighy as Johnny Worricker


After the exotic holiday atmosphere of the second film, Turks & Caicos, The Worricker trilogy concludes with Salting the Battlefield. Writer/director David Hare takes us back, literally, to where we started gradually, starting the action out in Europe, where former agents and lovers Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) and Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter) are on the run, before swinging the focus back onto England, then London and finally the claustrophobic confines of the spying community and the upper echelons of the UK government.

Familiar faces return – a heavily pregnant Felicity Jones as Worricker’s permanently angry estranged daughter Juliette, Saskia Reeves as Anthea Catcheside, the deputy prime minister wondering if her hour might be coming, Judy Davis as coiffed and suited MI5 boss Jill Tankard, Ewen Bremner as former spook and now “useful” journalist Rollo Maverley and Ralph Fiennes as Alec Beasley, a prime minister so convinced he has right on his side in every situation that David Hare might as well have called him Tony Blair.

Not forgetting Rupert Graves as Stirling Rogers, the public face of the Foundation run on behalf of the prime minister, and designed to give Beasley a political afterlife. Rogers, though not much of a character in terms of drama, is the nub on which the whole plot turns.

And Worricker’s task is to prove it – that Rogers is just a face and that the real force behind a Foundation intimately bound up in the illegal extraordinary rendition and torture that took place post 9/11 is none other than the UK’s prime minister.

He’s hoping to do it not with an exposé, but by giving Rogers (and by extension the PM) enough rope – by dropping hinting stories into the newspapers – and watching to see if either man will fashion a noose with it. It’s the cover-up not the crime that catches people out, Worricker explains to ballsy Independent newspaper editor Belinda Kay (Olivia Williams) when he finally arrives back in the UK for showtime.

Cat and mouse is the initial mood – Worricker and Tyrell on the run in Europe, evading capture, moving from one safe house or hotel to the next, switching countries, always half a step ahead. But Hare has evidently been watching the US reboot of House of Cards, which debuted in 2013, and he’s borrowed some of that style for a series of one-on-one scenes heavy with silken-tongued interchange. Judy Davis and Saskia Reeves get one early on, in which the spy boss effectively tells the deputy PM to stick with her if she wants to get the top job… without ever quite saying that. Brilliantly written and acted.

Ralph Fiennes as the prime minister
Beware: politician!



So it comes as a bit of a jolt with one scene out on the street, Worricker’s furious daughter and her errant dad having a proper ding dong, that maybe things have actually been a bit too silken for much of the film. The individual one-on-one scenes have been utterly gripping, but the connective tissue joining them all together has been a bit weak. Call it a plot, call it drama.

What Hare does get just right is the way politicians see the “top job” these days, ever since Tony Blair, as a stepping stone on to greater things – a gig at the UN or a “rapporteur” role in some other supranational agency.

The joys of Salting the Battlefield are in all those one-on-one scenes. Near the end of the 90 minutes we get the heavyweight bout with Judy Davis and Bill Nighy facing off, the pair of them signalling madly with a billion subliminal tics that everything they say is doublespeak, the actors as comfortable in their roles as their characters are meant to be.

And so it ends as it began in Page Eight. Dragon slayed? Not quite. Hare is not that naive. But the good fight has at least been fought. And as Johnny Worricker lights up a cigarette and heads out into the night while jazz parps away on the soundtrack three films’ worth of old-fashioned spook stuff come to an end.

Incidentally, the newspaper involved in flushing out the PM, The Independent, ceased production as a print entity within 18 months of Salting the Battlefield airing. That’s entirely appropriate. This has largely been an exercise in end-of-an-era nostalgia, print journalism being as much a relic of a bygone era as Tinker Tailor spycraft.




Salting the Battlefield, the final instalment of the Worricker trilogy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Turks & Caicos

Bill Nighy


Turks & Caicos is the second of the Johnny Worricker trilogy of TV movies made by Carnival Films (of Downton Abbey fame) for the BBC and boasting the sort of cast that was still rare at small screen level in 2014. Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder are the properly big names, though Dylan Baker, Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves and Ewen Bremner (returning from the first movie) are hardly kitty litter. Ralph Fiennes, though present and correct, is only on screen for a few seconds and so doesn’t really count.

For those coming in cold, there is absolutely no need to have watched the first one (Page Eight) to enjoy the second. All you need to know, and it’s easy to work out within seconds, is that Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker (now posing under the ho-ho nom de guerre of Tom Elliot, poetry lovers) is an ex-spy who is hiding out in the paradisical British Protectorate of the Turks & Caicos Islands, having fled the UK after dynamiting his career.

Whether the laconic, supersmart Worricker really did just “take the first flight” he saw on the departures board at Heathrow, as he claims, or has some agenda is never really established, but the tentacles of extraordinary rendition continue to exert a strong grip, with the island full of wealthy businesmen who have all profited hugely from the off-the-books, over-the-odds shady deals they’ve been able to do with the US government thanks to the “war on terror”.

Returnees will remember that Page Eight came at the subject from a different direction – how the US had co-opted allies into playing along with illegal rendition on black sites, with writer/director Hare making the point obliquely that, to avoid the charge of being a vassal state, countries often carry out the US’s wishes with more enthusiasm than is strictly required.

Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy
Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy



Here Hare is much more interested in the interface between the US government and private companies, who made a bundle out of rendition, and since seediness is the charge, business associates Gary Bethwaite (Dylan Baker), Dido Parsons (Zach Grenier) and Frank Church (James Naughton) all have the complacent, badly dressed look of New Jersey mobsters who’ve accidentally gone legit. And as if we hadn’t twigged that they are not good guys, Hare throws in a sexual subplot involving all three and their company PR, the appropriately named Melanie Fall (Ryder).

Melanie Fall is meant to be a damaged character and Winona Ryder goes at her with eyes wide and all the bonkers lights flashing. She’s madly brilliant at it, even though you kind of wonder how much of what Ryder is doing is acting. Even more fun is watching every scene where Nighy and Walken interact, both of them masters of supremely mannered delivery, with each one obviously trying to make the other one corpse by ladling on ever increasing amounts of whatever it is that they do. Vastly enjoyable.

Walken gets the best speech, a remarkably prescient one for 2014, which inveighs against America’s endless wars and their cost and warns that people back home are “sore… it’s dusk in America,” a sentiment picked up months down the line by Donald Trump.

Even though the sunny Turks and Caicos settings mean it threatens to turn into an episode of the cosy BBC whodunit series Death in Paradise at any minute, it’s a more satisying film than Page Eight, clicking along like a precision watch and with a politics that seem more grounded in the consensual neoliberal stasis of the day. Along with Worricker’s James Bond-alike ability to set female loins aflame, these mark out Turks & Caicos as a film from what now seems like another era.

The last of the trilogy, Salting the Battlefield, would follow later in the year. And my review of that will be along shortly too.




Turks & Caicos, the second of the Johnny Worricker trilogy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Page Eight

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy


From the instant Page Eight starts we know where we are. The camera focuses on Bill Nighy’s face. He lights a cigarette and, as jazz music sulks away on the soundtrack, he strides out into the night. Johnny Worricker (Nighy) is another of Raymond Chandler’s white knights tilting at baddies out on the mean streets and we’re in a noirish thriller set in a world of duplicity.

Personally, I’ll watch anything with Nighy in it, his gangling deadpan generally improving everything it’s inserted into. But there are two other “watch anything they’re in” presences in Page Eight. Michael Gambon (not in it nearly long enough), “the Great Gambon” as Ralph Richardson called him, and Judy Davis, both of whom play Worricker’s superiors at whatever branch of the British intelligence services he works at. If Nighy is Michael Caine in The Ipcress File, think of Gambon and Davis in the Nigel Green and Guy Doleman roles, if that isn’t too oblique.

It is a great cast all the way through in fact. Rachel Weisz, Felicity Jones, Tom Hughes, Ralph Fiennes, Ewen Bremner.

Judy Davis
Judy Davis as Worricker’s boss



Corruption in high places is its motor, the telltale evidence first spotted by the eagle-eyed Johnny – far smarter than he ever lets on – on page eight of a top-secret document about the British government’s knowledge of the US’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture on black sites.

Writer/director David Hare’s abiding concern with the workings (or failings) of public institutions is to the fore, and this being shot in 2011, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the threat of homegrown terrorism are part of the socio-cultural tapestry. Johnny, though one of the “elite”, is one of the good guys. How quaint 2011 now seems.

Hare feeds other stories into this main one detailing how Johnny winkles out the truth about the British government’s enabling compliance in the rendition, and they’re all “Johnny’s relationship with X” in nature – Johnny’s relationship with his estranged artist daughter (Felicity Jones), with the Prime Minister (Fiennes), an alum of the same Oxbridge college, with his mysterious activist neighbour (Weisz), with his ex wife (Alice Krige), who is now married to his oldest chum and boss (Gambon). “We share a wife,” Johnny says drily at one point à propos a plot detail which suggests more than it delivers.

Worricker is the classic spy who cares too much and is so engrossed in his work that he can’t switch off. This leads to him constantly being accused by anyone he’s close to of being duplicitous when in fact it’s everyone else in his crazy mixed-up world who’s dealing from the bottom of the pack.

Some aspects of Hare’s plot now seem a touch politically naive, but in any case it’s not altogether clear what Hare thinks he’s making here – an angry political thriller or one of those cosy TV detective dramas like Inspector Morse, with Oxbridge locations, little antique shops set in picturesque towns with crooked streets, and featuring droves of top-notch character actors.

It’s not going to shock, in other words, and its final reveals, as the bad guy is revealed, are all too depressingly familiar. Some things flat-out don’t work, in particular Johnny’s relationship with his too-keen neighbour, which hits all sorts of bum notes, in spite of Rachel Weisz as the mysterious Nancy Pierpan, the 20 year age gap now looking a bit of a stretch in a post #MeToo world. But as an opener to two more Worricker films (Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield, both from 2014), it’s an enjoyable and even relaxing whodunit. And who doesn’t want to watch Nighy in action?




Page Eight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

keira knightley potc2

 

 

Yo ho ho and a bottle of something very rum, this second instalment of Gore Verbinski’s money-spinner is a swirling follow-on from part one and a dizzying lead into part three – it’s all midsection in other words. Tonally, it’s Monty Python’s Life of Blackbeard, but with one big difference. It’s not funny. The question is: is it supposed to be? The actors don’t seem to know, so they all camp it up just to be on the safe side. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow continues channelling Keith Richards and actually getting Donatella Versace. Orlando Bloom leaps about trying to look like the film is about him. And Keira Knightley looks fiercely gorgeous, whether in full skirts, or disguised as a man for some of the film’s most improbable bits. New arrivals include Bill Nighy, unrecognisable as a squid-faced Davy Jones, and Stellan Skarsgard as a pirate with a starfish face. I hope both were paid full whack, in spite of being only half used. They probably were because the one thing you can’t deny about this extravaganza is that it cost a packet, and looks it too, thanks to the teams who laboured to integrate CGI and live action – the film’s real achievement. But god, POTC2 is long and, tellingly, the outtakes are a lot more fun than the film itself.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – at Amazon