In Minamata, Johnny Depp plays Eugene Smith, a real-life photographer who found fame taking pictures for Life Magazine. Taking place in 1971, the film opens with Smith famous but burned out. He spends most of his time in his run-down apartment or walking the streets of New York. His camera is always with him, a tool of both his art and a symbol of his detachment. Smith can capture the world in a photograph but he’s still not sure that he wants to be a part of it. Smith is outspoken, eccentric, and ultimately a bit of an idealist who hides behind a cloak of cynicism.
When Smith is asked to come to the Japanese city of Minamata so that he can photograph the effects of Mercury poisoning on the citizens, he agrees to do so. Armed with only his camera and aided only by his translator, Aileen (Minami), Smith discovers a community that has been ravaged by environmental pollution. Smith tries to bring the story of Minamata to the world, despite the efforts of one of Japan’s largest corporations to silence him.
As far as films go, Minamata isn’t bad. It feels a lot like a throwback to the old social problem films of the late 70s and the early 80s. Watching the film, it was easy to draw comparisons to similar films like The China Syndrome, Silkwood, A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, and even Promised Land. Like the characters at the heart of those films, Eugene Smith is an unlikely crusader but when he sees a heartless corporation destroying lives, he feels that he has no choice but to act. The film’s narrative momentum occasionally sputters and there are a few too many scenes of Smith haranguing his editor but the film’s heart is in the right place. Johnny Depp gives a surprisingly sincere performance as Eugene Smith, playing him as someone who is a bit of a natural screw-up but who still wants to make the world a better place. The film’s best scenes are the ones in which Smith tries to convince the camera-shy villagers to allow him to document what’s happening to them. Minamata is at its best when it just allows Depp (as Smith) to interact with other people.
Of course, by this point, Minamata is probably best known for the drama that went on behind-the-scenes. Minamata was filmed in 2019 and made its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2020. Distribution rights were eventually purchased by MGM and it was originally slated to be released in 2021. However, after Amber Heard accused Depp of domestic abuse, MGM took the film off of its schedule. Due to the bad publicity surrounding Depp, it appeared that the film would be buried. Depp’s fans reacted by voting for Minamata to win the Oscars Fan Favorite contest. Though Minamata ultimately came in third place, that’s a good showing for a film that hardly anyone had seen and which hadn’t even been distributed in the United States. The victory of the Snyder Cut may have gotten all the attention but Minamata‘s strong showing served to remind Hollywood that, despite the accusations, Johnny Depp still had a strong fanbase.
It’s tempting to say that Minamata got its release due to the outcome of the Depp/Heard libel trial. It was actually released on Hulu while the trial was still going on. Though Minamata is probably destined to be mostly remembered as a footnote in Oscar history, it is a film that shows that Johnny Depp can still give a good performance when he has the right material.