‘Minamata’ review: sluggish eco-disaster drama is another forgettable Johnny Depp B-movie

Depp's gonzo turn is half-Captain Birdseye half-raggedy art student

Johnny Depp’s definitive role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise tends to overshadow his body of work. Aside from his portrayal of villainous wizard Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts films, it’s something of a challenge to name another memorable Depp character without Googling first. Unhelpfully, he’s all too often stuck in forgettable films, like 2018 crime biopic City of Lies or little-known comedy drama from the same year The Professor. New eco-disaster drama Minamata is, sadly, no different.

Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name, Minamata sees Depp play drunk, amphetamine-addicted photographer W. Eugene Smith. It’s 1971 and the master snapper is famous for his extraordinary work with Life magazine, but finds himself living in a New York City hovel with blacked-out windows, smoking while replaying turbulent Second World War memories over and over in his head. After an angry row with Life editor Bob Hayes (Bill Nighy), Smith is wallowing at home when Japanese anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko turns up to shoot a long overdue Fujifilm endorsement. Mioko convinces Smith to return with her to Japan and photograph the unwell and deformed residents of Minamata, a fishing village near the southern tip of Japan. Local families had been emotionally and physically devastated by the nearby Chisso factory, which had been dumping toxic chemicals into the water supply. Smith and Mioko work together diligently, painstakingly meeting residents to get the full story over several months and – of course – fall in love in the process.

Perhaps the most exciting moment is an illicit dash around the factory hospital, filching documents and snapping patients. Large public protest scenes where residents confront duplicitous factory executives also add much-needed tension. The sad, grim consequences of Chisso’s mercury poisoning – what became known as Minamata disease – would kill 1,784 people of 2,265 contaminated. Smith himself died in 1978, with the disease contributing to his death, while Chisso only admitted culpability after Smith’s Life photo essay made headlines around the world.

Depp, half-Captain Birdseye half-raggedy art student, plays Smith as an angry rebel in search of answers. But his ‘drunk-acting’ – more A Level drama club than Academy Award nominee – is less than convincing. Opposite him, Minami Hinase is impressive in a less showy part as calm Aileen – a kind, gentle soul in difficult circumstances. Minamata’s downfall has nothing to do with the performances, however. Instead, its main problem is a lack of on-screen urgency, which minimises the harrowing drama of the real-life events. Certainly, it pales into insignificance when compared to Todd Haynes’ upcoming Dark Waters, a movie which tackles another recent environmental catastrophe in gripping fashion. Sadly, Minamata is yet another forgettable Depp B-movie destined for the bargain bucket.


  • Director: Andrew Levitas
  • Starring: Johnny Depp, Bill Nighy, Hiroyuki Sanada
  • Release date: February 21 (Berlin International Film Festival)