A broken, washed-up genius is roused from drink-sodden seclusion for one last flaring of creative brilliance: actor Johnny Depp hinted that at some level he was able to identify with legendary photographer W Eugene Smith, whom he plays in his latest film.
Speaking before Friday’s premiere of “Minamata”, Depp, who has talked frankly of his own struggles with drink and drugs through successive marriages, described his admiration for a man who had to conquer his own demons in order to create his art.
Smith, who made his name as a World War Two photographer for “Life” magazine, was in decline and on the brink of suicide when activists enticed him to go to southern Japan to document the sufferings of the people of Minamata, who had been poisoned by emissions from the town’s chemical plant.
“A broken alcoholic who finds a purpose and sort of a new chapter in his life,” Depp told a news conference at the Berlin Film Festival, where the film premieres. “Yeah. Heard that story somewhere before,” he added with a smile.
Directed by Andrew Levitas, the film brings Depp together with a cast of Japanese actors, including Hirayuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai”) and Minami – she uses just the one name – who plays Aileen, the activist who enticed Smith to take on one final story and who later became the photographer’s wife.
Lovingly shot by French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, seemingly undaunted by the challenge of depicting a major photographer making some of his greatest work, the film shows the sacrifices a troubled artist demands of those around him.
“I really appreciate Aileen Smith,” said Minami. “She’s a shadow hero in this story. She supported Eugene but she made things – I really feel this power from Aileen.”
Bill Nighy plays the Bob Hayes, the Life editor who alternately rages at and cajoles Smith in the hope that the troubled legend can yet produce a final cover story.
His perseverance is rewarded with “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”, Smith’s portrait of a mother bathing her cruelly disabled child. Published in 1972 in one of Life’s final issues, it is regarded as a classic of photojournalism.
“Gene is a very lucky person,” said Aileen Smith, also present at the Berlin news conference. “He died years ago but we’re all here. Through his photography he is very much alive.”
Although the story induced the chemicals factory to pay the compensation victims were demanding, many in the region are still suffering from the poison pumped into their environment for over 30 years.