Aileen and W Eugene Smith

From its title right through to its last gasp, Minamata, a drama based on real events, 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

Waiting for the Barbarians

Colonel Joll and the Magistrate

It’s a Sondheimian title, Waiting for the Barbarians – as in, “don’t worry, they’re here” – a story about the white man’s civilising mission on some distant frontier and how it gives licence to people whose instincts are far from civilised.

The uniforms are deliberately non-specific but for the sake of argument we might as well say it’s the British who are in the spotlight, especially as Brit Mark Rylance is the star. He’s also almost the entire focus of a film about a kindly magistrate way out in the midst of a sandy nowhere whose humanist tendencies are crushed underfoot by the arrival of one badass after another.

Enter Johnny Depp, in another of his over-elaborate, overly enunciated performances as some kind of cop who’s been sent in to conduct an audit of the magistrate’s operation and flush out the barbarians he’s convinced are lurking. His methods are brutal – “Pain is truth, all else is subject to doubt,” he announces to the shocked magistrate, who can only look on powerlessly as Colonel Joll (Depp) sets about torturing information out of the locals, in the process creating the very resistance he’s come to sniff out.

Later, Robert Pattinson will turn up, Officer Mandel being another martinet who believes that there’s no problem that can’t be fixed with a bit of violence. The two poles of the Empire are laid out before us, culture-wars style – the rationalist, humanist, civilising side represented by Rylance and the brutish, inhumane side by first Depp and later, in a particularly dead-eyed performance, by Pattinson.

Somewhere in the middle is Gana Bayarsaikhan as “The Girl”. The striking Mongolian actor/model is, we’re told, going to be a big star and gets off to a good start here as a local young woman caught up in the nastiness visited by Colonel Joll and Officer Mandel on what had been a sleepy, sunny nowhere criss-crossed by nomadic tribes.

In films like Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage (co-directed with his wife, Cristina Gallego), Ciro Guerra has dealt sensitively and intelligently with stories about the effect that the arrival of Westerners and their values has on indigenous populations, so this adaptation of a JM Coetzee novel fits his MO.

Gana Bayarsaikhan in tribal finery
Gana Bayarsaikhan in tribal finery

Coetzee’s novel, written in 1980, was at the time a useful corrective to a prevailing narrative about the Empire – the white man’s burden and all that – but now seems a blunt instrument. In one scene the magistrate – losing rank and prestige as the film progresses – washes the feet of the tortured Girl. He’s Jesus, we get it.

Guerra is particularly good on summoning a sense of place, and is massively helped here by DP Chris Menges, the master cinematographer with The Mission and The Killing Fields on his CV, who brings an epic look reminiscent of Zulu or Lawrence of Arabia to what is absolutely unquestionably a magnificent-looking film.

Too magnificent, possibly. As one carefully shot, tastefully lit scene gives way to another, the steady, stately pace threatens to stall the film entirely. Blame Menges, if you like, but really this is a director’s shout.

Guerra makes things worse by letting Depp have his head as a pantomime villain (complete with prototype Bond-villain shades), a lead which Pattinson follows. Bad guys, we get that too.

Where are the locals? Bayarsaikhan apart, there aren’t that many in this film, and those that are in it aren’t really individuated. Whether they have a messiah complex or arrive with more malevolent intent, this is a film about white guys doing white-guy stuff.

Which is all a bit ironic really, given Guerra’s previous output and the magistrate’s insistence on respect for the local people. An anti-colonial film made from within the colonial mindset is the result, which is fascinating in some respects. But what really does for Waiting for the Barbarians is its surfeit of taste.

Waiting for the Barbarians – 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