Despite being the central character, Johnny Depp is the least interesting part of Andrew Levitas’ film “Minamata,” based on the true story of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith who helped reduce the devastating impact of mercury poisoning in the 1970s. in coastal areas. communities in Japan.
In the film, Gene (Depp), as Eugene is called, who had gained recognition as a war photographer during World War II, has become a recluse – estranged from his children and plagued by alcoholism and substance abuse. Enter Aileen Mioko (Minami), a translator who recruits him to document the plight of a community in Japan afflicted by Minamata disease, a neurological disease with devastating and often fatal symptoms caused by the consumption of contaminated fish with toxic waste material. Eugene convinces his boss at Life magazine, Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), to send him on assignment.
The film is a slow reveal and focuses largely on Gene before turning the lens on the crisis he must capture. “Minamata” is often undermined by its protagonist, whose crass ways clash with Japanese culture and distract from its central message. Gene is accompanied by Aileen, who corrects his manners and instills empathy, such as when he insists on photographing a victim’s face. He, and thus the film, keeps their subjects at a safe distance. In one scene, Gene sits across from a Japanese child with Minamata’s disease and says, “I know you don’t understand a word I’m saying, but that doesn’t stop me from talking,” to emphasize the disconnect.
You get the feeling everywhere that the real action is happening elsewhere: on the ground, powered by the people living with the effects of the disease. There are powerful scenes of impassioned strategy meetings and protesters at the doors of a chemical company, screaming for justice. “Minamata” would have been enhanced by allowing viewers to see and hear these people directly.
Rated R for language everywhere. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.