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VOD Review: Minamata

April 8, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Minamata, the new film starring Johnny Depp, got a publicity boost recently when fans of the actor helped make it the third place winner in the ill-conceived Oscars Fan Favourite category presented during this year’s Academy Awards.

That the actor’s supporters could essentially game the online voting system to make this little-known film rank above Spider-Man: No Way Home speaks to inherent problems with the unofficial award itself. But it’s good for the film, which premiered at Berlin in 2020 and is finally being released now, and otherwise would have gone pretty much completely under the radar.

The film serves as a pretty good biopic of Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith (played by Depp), that focuses specifically on his work in the 1970s photographing the effects of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. When we first meet Depp’s Smith at the start of the film, he is somewhat washed up. He is struggling with alcoholism after a career of photographing wars and conflict, and fighting with publisher Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy, with an American accent) who is reluctant to give him another assignment.

Things change when he meets Aileen Mioko (Minami), a Japanese translator who requests that he come to the small fishing village of Minamata in Kumamoto, Japan where the Chisso Corporation is dumping toxic chemicals into the water, to help raise awareness of the issue. The locals are suffering from mercury poisoning that is causing paralysis and birth defects, which has been swept under the rug by the company, with only vague reports of a sickness known as “Minamata disease.” The film follows Smith as he attempts to blow the lid off the corporation through his photojournalism, but faces intense pushback.

Despite personal baggage around him, Depp delivers a good performance in Minamata that reminds us how solid and dependable he can be as an actor. While it might not seem like his most transformative work, Depp does disappear behind the beard and glasses of his character, and the role allows him to play in a more subdued register. When we first meet him in the film, Smith is a surly, taciturn figure who has grown hardened and cynical through his work, and Depp offers a very effective portrayal of him as he softens up around the locals and jumps back into action following years of stagnation.

Directed by Andrew Levitas, and based on a 1975 non-fiction book written by Mioko and Smith, Minamata shares a powerful and important true story, though plays out as a fairly straight-forward “issues film.” While this standard approach is in no way bad, the execution is a bit uneven at times, with the establishing scenes in particular feeling somewhat rushed. But the film picks up once Smith reaches Japan, and Levitas stages some strong scenes throughout, including a few poignant moments when he connects with local kids afflicted by mercury poisoning, even teaching one boy how to take and develop photographs.

There are also some moments of tension when Smith is taken on a tour of the factory and is blackmailed by Chisso’s CEO, Junichi Nojima (Jun Kunimura). The film as a whole isn’t quite as strong as some of its individual moments, but Minamata still functions as a decent historical drama that raises awareness of chemical pollution on behalf of corporations, and features a fine Johnny Depp performance to boot.

Minamata is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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