Minamata – Film Review

Minamata is a film directed by Andrew Levitas, which is about photographer W. Eugene Smith. It stars Johnny Depp who gives his best performance in years, accompanied by Bill Nighy and a number of Japanese actors, including Hiroyuki Sanada and Minami Hinase. In the US, the film has fallen into a sort of controversy with the studio, MGM, because the director sent them a letter of complaint saying they are trying to bury the film because of the fallout from Depp’s divorce and ongoing legal troubles with Amber Heard. In the UK, it will probably have a short theatrical run followed by a VOD release.

Depp portrays Smith as a sort of beatnik journalist, an important photographer who mainly worked for Life magazine. While Smith is on assignment in Japan, his Japanese translator and collaborator, Aileen (Minami), asks him to visit the city of Minamata. Industrial pollution from a chemical company called Chisso has left coastal communities in the area affected by mercury poisoning (now known as Minamata disease). Smith has to win the trust of the community in order to tell their story, and he also fights with Life magazine and the Japanese government, which has business links with the chemical company.

Depp was also a producer on the film, and as he has only produced a handful of films, he obviously he saw this as a reputation-builder as well as an attractive story—and it is a great story and good role. He plays this boozy, amphetamine-taking photojournalist (such a stretch for Depp!), and he is at least trying. It is a genuinely good performance with some touching moments.

I don’t think Depp has anything officially confirmed as currently in production, and given that Hollywood is now more or less shunning him, it will be interesting to see where his career goes after Minamata. It is possible that he will go back to the more interesting roles that he built his early film career on, now that the major franchise leads like Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts are not on offer. He’s had to take a serious pay cut for his latest projects because his normal fee is just not practical anymore.

There are also some cheesy moments, like when he sings a Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” while cradling a disabled child, but it’s a good drama on an important topic. It also has some god cinematography by Benoit Delhomme (who also shot The Proposition). There is a good mix of black-and-white newsreel footage and colour cinematography. The Japanese cast also shines, especially Minami, who later becomes Smith’s wife. Bill Nighy is great as always as Smith’s editor at Time. Importantly, Minamata doesn’t fall into the “white saviour” trap that many of these kinds of films do—the Japanese characters are also strong, and Depp steps aside when he needs to.

Minamata certainly points a hopeful way forward for Depp’s career by playing to some of his strengths, and allowing him to lose himself in a role where you almost don’t recognise him. He could still have a healthy film career ahead of him, despite some people writing him off. It’s not unlike, though not quite as good as, Todd Haynes’ recent Dark Waters. Even the text at the end that explains what happened next is similar (somewhat unnecessarily, the filmmaker here goes through all the different chemical poisoning of people around the world, which is important but maybe not necessary in the film.) Also, Ryuchi Sakamoto does the score, so that’s obviously great.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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