Director: Andrew Levitas
Starring: Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami, Jun Kunimura, Ryo Kase, Tadanou Asano, Bill Nighy
Run Time: 115 mins
Minamata is directed by Andrew Levitas and is one of three Johnny Depp projects that has been in limbo for some time regarding its release in the UK. The revered actor became a risk for studios following his high-profile controversy with Amber Heard. Minamata happened to be a film he had starred in that the studio then had a problem with releasing due to Depp’s public image. It received a close to non-existent release at the end of August and has now been unceremoniously dumped and buried away on Amazon Prime Video. The other Depp vehicles that are yet to see the light of day in the UK are City of Lies and Ciro Guerra’s Waiting For The Barbarians, both of which pre-date Minamata in their filming.
Johnny Depp plays Life magazine photographer, W. Eugene Smith, who is at a low point of his career. He’s taken to drink, is overdue on his rent and is a recluse. That is until the beret-wearing, bearded photographer scores a job with his editor, Robert Hayes (Bill Night). Hayes admires his work but despises his personality. Eugene is sent to Minamata, Japan to investigate and chronicle the suffering of its local citizens who are experiencing severe to life-changing health problems. They are being poisoned by mercury in the shellfish they are eating, as the powerful chemical company Chisso Corporations is pumping mercury into the water. No-one is listening to the people and the corporation are only concerned with profit. This job would go onto become one of the most famous of Eugene’s career, with images such Tomoko in her Bath representinga poignant staple of photojournalism.
Minamata’s true-story narrative should play to its advantage but the result is unfortunately more of a miss than a hit. It’s a shame that Levitas isn’t sure if he wants the film to be a character study of Smith or if it should be an industrial pollution drama in the vein of Dark Waters. The result is a film that pulls in opposing directions and it just isn’t as affecting as its premise suggests, and is even criminally unengaging at times. It could have been possible to juggle these two components together but Levitas can’t figure out how to. There are prolonged sequences of Eugene’s alcohol exploits and his resulting hangovers that don’t really add much to the story. The biopic elements are overly familiar and feel divorced from Eugene’s eccentricity, as well as lacking in tension.
That’s not to say Minamata is without its bright spots. Johnny Depp’s performance is brilliantly nuanced and he gives the film a needed spark. It is fittingly well-shot by Benoit Delhomme, considering this is a film about photography and the score by the ever-reliable Ryuichi Sakamoto does some of the heavy lifting in places. When the film finds its feet in places, it’s engaging enough and Levitas at least does an amiable job of establishing the scope of chemical poisoning in the film’s closing moments.
Minamata is ultimately an overly conventional biopic that isn’t as enthralling as it should be but it’s worth seeing for Depp’s reliably brilliant performance.