Review: ‘Minamata’ stars Johnny Depp in a redemption tale where the real star is the story

A man in glasses and a beret stares straight ahead in the movie “Minamata.”
Johnny Depp in the movie “Minamata.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

In the biographical drama “Minamata,” Johnny Depp plays W. Eugene Smith, an acclaimed and innovative photojournalist who by the early 1970s — according to the movie, anyway — had developed a reputation as an unreliable, curmudgeonly drunk. In what would turn out to be the last years of his life, Smith took an assignment in Japan to document the effects of mercury poisoning on citizens living near a chemical factory. His intimate photographs shocked the world, capping an influential career.

Given that Depp is one of the producers of “Minamata” — and given that his own reputation has lately been pretty rocky — it’d be easy to see this film as a stab at redemption. This is, after all, a movie about a troubled genius, who overcame his vices and his doubters to produce work that changed minds.

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But while Depp is quite good in “Minamata” — even buried beneath Smith’s bushy beard and thick glasses — the real star is the story, which isn’t as well known today as it used to be.


Directed and co-produced by Andrew Levitas (who also co-wrote the script with a team of collaborators), “Minamata” is fairly conventional in its approach. It’s essentially a comeback story about an undervalued old pro who regains his fire once he realizes his work really matters. It’s also a “truth to power” story about the oppressed and underprivileged shaming well-heeled malefactors.

It is not, by any means, a comprehensive portrait of Smith, whose earlier accomplishments — as a World War II correspondent and as a pioneer of the Life magazine photo essay — draw only a passing mention. Even the time Smith spent in Japan is compressed for dramatic purposes, turning a project that took years to complete into something produced under intense deadline pressure.

But taken on its own merits — as an accessible if ahistorical dramatization of an environmental tragedy — “Minamata” does what it sets out to do very well. The cast is outstanding (including Bill Nighy as a Life magazine editor who distrusts Smith but is swayed by the power of his images), and the “fallen hero reawakens” arc really works. Like Smith’s pictures, this movie is direct, compelling and hard to dismiss.


Rated: R, for language throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 11 in limited release; also on VOD