Early Reviews For Johnny Depp's Movie Minamata Praise 'Unrecognizable' Actor

Minamata film
(Image credit: Larry D. Horricks)

Johnny Depp is using his star power to bring awareness to a little-discussed tragedy in history, but he's doing so through a movie that renders him nearly unrecognizable. The film Minamata just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, and early reviews are now out.

Minamata is set in the 1970s, starring Johnny Depp as real-life reclusive war photographer W. Eugene Smith, who shined a light on the deadly mercury poisoning by a powerful corporation in the fishing village of Minamata in Japan.

The Minamata movie covers Smith's documentation of the Minamata disease scandal. Since the film just premiered, there are only a few reviews up at this point. The results seem mixed on the film itself, but there's plenty of praise for Johnny Depp's eccentric performance.

The Guardian's 3-star review by Peter Bradshaw pointed out some clichés in the storytelling but praised the worthwhile story:

Minamata is not a masterpiece and there are one or two clichés here about western saviours and boozy, difficult, passionate journalists who occupy the perennial Venn diagram overlap between integrity and alcoholism. This movie’s producer-star Johnny Depp has form on this score, with his starstruck impersonation of Hunter Thompson. And once again, he has chosen a role in which he wears a hat indoors. But Minamata is a forthright, heartfelt movie, an old-fashioned “issue picture” with a worthwhile story to tell about how communities can stand up to overweening corporations and how journalists dedicated to truthful news can help them.

THR's Deborah Young singled out Johnny Depp's performance several times but also mentioned the genre clichés in use:

Johnny Depp in the role of acclaimed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith is the most fortunate thing about Minamata, the impassioned account of a real-life environmental tragedy in Japan caused by industrial negligence. The battle waged by the residents of a small coastal town, mostly fishermen and their families, to stop a chemical factory from pouring toxic waste into the sea and the fish they eat makes for a chilling tale of greed and horror, with parallels to the Erin Brockovich story. Only here, director Andrew Levitas and his co-screenwriters dramatize a riveting story using a mass of groan-worthy genre clichés that ill-serve the truth they are trying to recreate.

But again, THR had praise for Johnny Depp's charismatic performance:

The wild card that should anyway draw audiences is Depp, amusingly unrecognizable behind an unkempt gray beard, wire rim glasses and a natty beret. He effortlessly captures the bohemian contrariness of the brilliant war photographer Gene Smith as he approaches the end of his career plagued by debts, alcohol, nightmares and disillusionment.

Variety's Peter Debruge also noted Johnny Depp's "unrecognizable" transformation and compared his performance to his role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

The undeniably compelling project (just Levitas’ second as director, after 2014’s low-budget but starry Lullaby) resurrects a downward-sliding Johnny Depp — looking all but unrecognizable behind sun damage, liver spots and a sparse, spackled-on beard — in what feels like an extension of the gonzo Hunter S. Thompson performance he delivered in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Independent UK's 2-star review had praise for Johnny Depp, but writer Geoffrey Macnab also felt like the director should've reined him in a bit:

Depp’s portrayal of Smith is lively and nuanced. The movie star reminds us that he is a talented character actor with a wide range. His freewheeling performance suggests the photographer saw himself as a jazz musician, with a camera instead of a saxophone. However, writer-director Andrew Levitas indulges his lead actor, sometimes holding scenes for too long as the photographer gets extravagantly drunk or struggles to cope with his near-permanent hangovers. Smith is so eccentric that it wouldn’t take very much to turn him into one of those comic characters from the Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield shows that Depp so admires.

Here's the full synopsis for Minamata from the Berlin film festival site:

1971. With the glory days of World War II far behind him, celebrated war photographer W. Eugene Smith has become a recluse. He is at first dismissive of a commission from “Life” Magazine editor Robert "Bob" Hayes to travel back to Japan and investigate the poisoning of the inhabitants of a fishing village called Minamata. But an impassioned Japanese translator, Aileen, urges him to accept, and Smith is finally convinced to do his best to expose the devastating effects of corporate greed, complicit local police and government. Armed with only his trusted camera against a powerful corporation, Smith must gain the broken community’s trust and find the images that will bring this story to the world. Johnny Depp plays the legendary American photographer with his usual consummate dedication, movingly demonstrating how fighting one’s inner demons is a necessary step on the way to greater victories.

At the Minamata press conference in Berlin, Johnny Depp said (via Variety) he had a "strange fascination" with W. Eugene Smith and his photography, which was enhanced when he "read a bit about his life and what he’d gone through, what he’d experienced, what he’d sacrificed to capture those moments, to capture those photos." Depp said the Minamata scandal was "a story that needed to be told" and he wanted to "harness the power of media or cinema or art and use it to open people’s eyes."

Speaking of using media to open people's eyes, Johnny Depp's team just made a public move in his ongoing legal fight with ex-wife Amber Heard, which is tied to his role in Pirates of the Caribbean. That trial is currently scheduled for late summer.

Check out HanWay Films' official poster for Minamata, which was released shortly before the film's premiere:

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It's not clear yet when Minamata might be released in the U.S., either in theaters or for home release, but stay tuned. Johnny Depp is also expected to return to start filming Fantastic Beasts 3 pretty soon.

Gina Carbone

Gina grew up in Massachusetts and California in her own version of The Parent Trap. She went to three different middle schools, four high schools, and three universities -- including half a year in Perth, Western Australia. She currently lives in a small town in Maine, the kind Stephen King regularly sets terrible things in, so this may be the last you hear from her.