Director: James Gray
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 ships to Ellis Island. This film is a visually beautiful and emotionally resonant period piece– moving and rich with a stunning aesthetic and stellar performances. It is less than revolutionary, and it moves slowly at first (as the genre dictates, perhaps) but it is overall a solidly executed and thoroughly engaging drama.
James Gray’s The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa, played brilliantly and impressively by Cotillard (who even had to learn enough Polish to speak lines in her character’s mother tongue and speak English with an equally effective accent). She arrives in New York City with her sister, who is detained in the infirmary of Ellis Island for having, we learn later, Tuberculosis. The rest of the film powerfully chronicles the desperate lengths that Ewa must go to in order to raise enough money to pay for her sister’s release, so they may finally be reunited and given a fair chance at the American dream.
Those desperate lengths, of course, mainly involve prostitution– Bruno, Phoenix’s character, runs a sort of cabaret/brothel business, and Ewa grows to hate herself for continuing to demean herself for not only her own survival’s sake, but for her beloved sister’s (since Bruno not only has the money to help her– but also the connections and, increasingly, an infatuation for Ewa as well). The film is painful in many ways– devastating proof that women have always been exploited and left powerless, but Ewa is spunky and strong in her own ways despite her objectification, and that makes her even more compelling.
The human characters on the whole are complex, and their interactions are often complex as well– pained and gripping, the drama eventually mounts quite a bit more than you may expect it to. With the appearance of Bruno’s cousin, Emil– a magician who also loves Ewa, and who seems, at least somewhat, more level-headed than Bruno– the film seems like it may devolve into nothing more than a 1930’s set love triangle. But, Renner gives a performance that is particularly out of type for him, refreshing and endearing, and yet our complicated feelings toward all the characters ensure that this film more or less remains an emotionally intense character-driven tale of not merely love and passion, but also spirituality, sanity, desperation, survival, and sin, all shot in gorgeously bleak sepia tones that likewise somehow never seem as trite as they could.