PLOT: Ewa (Marion Cotillard) – a Polish immigrant fleeing from her homeland in the 1920s – is separated from her tuberculosis-afflicted sister at Ellis Island. Dubbed a “woman of low morals” after an shipboard incident, Ewa is about to be deported when she’s approached by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) – a charismatic hustler who tells her he can find her work in New York so not only can she stay in America, but also save enough money to get her sister released from quarantine. Soon, Ewa finds herself degraded and forced to work as a prostitute from Bruno, all while hoping to scrounge enough money to build a life for herself and her sister in California.
REVIEW: It’s rare to see a movie that’s truly challenging outside of awards season. The Weinstein Company is making a bold move by opening James Gray’s THE IMMIGRANT in the middle of summer tent pole season, but it’s counter-programming that works and a nice, thoughtful alternative for moviegoers looking for something a little different.
For all the hype surrounding this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s worth mentioning that THE IMMIGRANT actually played there last year, although TWC opted not to put it out during Oscar season, where it might have been overlooked in favor of flashier fare. To be sure, THE IMMIGRANT is not an easy film. Relentlessly dark and grim, its view of early twentieth-century immigration is a strong contrast to the usually hopeful way it’s been depicted in many other films. America is still portrayed as the land where your dreams can come true, but here they only come true if you’re willing to pay a high price.
That’s certainly how it is for our heroine, Ewa, played by Cotillard in one of her best English-language performances. While not Polish, the French Cotillard has a kind of foreign, haunted beauty that works perfectly in the part. In other hands, Ewa might be portrayed as a victim, but Gray’s film is a lot grittier, with Cotillard no one’s victim. Phoenix – as her flashy boss – never forces her into prostitution, rather simply leveling with her, by telling her it’s the only way she has of saving her sister, who’s in danger of being deported due to her illness. Right off the bat, Cotillard is distrustful of Phoenix’s Bruno, hiding a chisel under her pillow in case he tries to take advantage of her, and never disguising her absolute contempt for him as a human being. This is further emphasized by her own inner conflict, with her Catholic faith making her feel like she’s somehow doomed to an eternity in hell for what Bruno’s making her do, but unable to leave him due to her sister’s predicament.
While Cotillard is phenomenal; Phoenix is downright revelatory as the complicated Bruno. Since re-emerging with THE MASTER and HER, he’s wasted no time re-establishing himself as one of the best American actors of his generation, and it really feels like no one but him could have played the part. While the temptation might be to make Bruno a villain, Phoenix plays him as a pathetic shell of a man. As the film goes on, he falls madly in love with Ewa, only to be constantly rebuffed by her contempt, which makes him hate himself so much that it starts to drive him insane. This is made even worse when his dashing cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner) shows up and effortlessly wins Ewa’s heart.
In its own way, Renner’s part is just as unconventional as Phoenix’s. While he seems to be a dashing romantic hero, whether he is or not is left ambiguous. Certainly, he’s shown as something of a bully, with him having just as much contempt for Bruno as Ewa does, and happy to steal whatever he can from his cousin, possibly including Ewa.
Like much of Gray’s work, THE IMMIGRANT is bleak, but not without its moments of hopefulness and beauty. Especially noteworthy is a concert given on Ellis Island by “The Great Caruso” to the detainees, where everyone is encouraged not to give up on their dreams of prosperity in America, even if the odds are against it. There’s another show-stopping scene later on where Phoenix eavesdrops on Ewa’s confession to a priest where he breaks down over the way he’s degraded her and made her despise him that can’t help but break your heart, even if it’s clear he’s far from a good guy. Like much of Gray’s work, the imagery is gritty, but the somewhat sepia-toned cinematography by Darius Khondji is often beautiful, with the final shot being a total stunner.
While it’s a challenging film, and certainly not an easy watch, THE IMMIGRANT is often brilliant and well worth checking out. While it’s been discussed a lot in relation to THE GODFATHER PART II, which also opened in Ellis Island, it feels even more like a companion piece to Sergio Leone’s immigrant gangster tale, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (with it even being called ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK in Italy). If you’re serious about film as art, this is one of the most important films of the year.