In Cinemas June 3rd
(Reviewed by John Glennie)
A true story about photographer-journalist W. Eugene Smith who became famous for his graphic photos taken in Japan in the second world war. After the war he went into “hibernation” following injuries and post-traumatic stress and took to the bottle. In 1971 he was sent, by Life magazine, on a secret commission to take photos showing the human suffering in the Japanese city of Minamata at the hands of Chisso Corporation. For decades, Chisso had been pumping mercury into the water resulting in terrible illnesses, deformities and deaths amongst the locals.
Even today the scenario is relevant with big corporations literally “getting away with murder”. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) has become a cynical and grumpy man over the years and always looks for solace in a whisky bottle. However, when he meets the family and associates of Aileen Mioko (Minami), including activist Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada – The Last Samurai), Smith soon understands the devastating impact of the poisoning.
Chisso have always shirked responsibility and denied any wrong-doing. When the corporation president is made aware of Smith’s presence he tries to bribe him to hand over the prints and negatives. Tougher measures are taken when Smith tells him where to go – and that is where we start to see the manipulative power of big corporations over the “little people”. During one of the civil riots, Chisso’s henchmen take the opportunity to isolate Smith and work him over – a bashing that almost blinds him!
The producers took a lot of time and care to portray Smith as honestly as possible and Depp gives a superb performance. I’m not sure if it was Gene Smith’s actual nature, but on many occasions I found Depp extremely hard to understand as he mumbled more than spoke! For me that was the only detracting feature of an otherwise excellent movie. A moving and confronting story and beautifully filmed.