The Immigrant isn’t just set in the past but feels like it’s been made from another time. Harking back to seemingly unfashionable modes of storytelling, the latest from director James Gray goes about its business with perfectly manicured detail and a deliberate pace, looking at the exploits of a luckless Polish woman newly arrived to the U.S. who learns how difficult attaining the American Dream can be. This is such an intelligent, mature work that it’s frustrating—and a little mystifying—that it isn’t more emotionally engaging than it is.
Gray has made his career chronicling contemporary New York—and often its criminal underworld, in movies like Little Odessa—so at first it’s a surprise to see him reach back nearly 100 years ago for his new film. But the lives of the lower class remain his obsession, and in The Immigrant he elevates his theme with a grandness he hasn’t attempted before. The costumes and décor and especially Darius Khondji’s cinematography are all rich and striking, recalling momentous dramas like The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America and On the Waterfront. However, Gray doesn’t overdo his movie’s parallels to modern-day U.S. political feuds about border control and immigration reform. Always more interested in people than messages, he’s after something far more intimate.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a young Polish woman who has arrived at Ellis Island with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), in 1921. Hoping to find happiness in America and escape the horrors of World War I, Ewa only gets turmoil, as her sister is detained for suspicion of having tuberculosis and Ewa is put into holding after it’s believed that she’s of low character because of an unspecified incident that occurred on the boat to America. It looks like Ewa is destined for immediate deportation until she’s rescued by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a local man who offers her boarding and a job at his theater—which, she will quickly learn, is nothing more than a high-class brothel.
Gray’s last film was the exquisite Two Lovers, also with Phoenix, and once again the filmmaker has crafted a romantic triangle of sorts. Initially, Bruno lords his power over Ewa, goading her into prostitution as a way to make money to help get Magda out of her legal limbo. Scared and desperate, she succumbs, but eventually she meets another man, the kindly magician who bills himself as Orlando (Jeremy Renner) and is a cousin of Bruno’s. Orlando immediately takes a shine to Ewa, determined to rescue her from this horrible life, but Bruno isn’t keen to release her, in part because he’s fallen in love with the woman.
A tight control of atmosphere is a constant in Gray’s work, and The Immigrant reeks of the melancholy and ugliness of its era, as different outsider groups, such as Jews and Poles, fight over control of whatever small territory they can snag in New York City’s underbelly. (Variety critic Peter Debruge has suggested that The Immigrant could serve as a prequel to Gray’s other movies, for indeed films like Little Odessa and We Own the Night could be populated with this movie’s offspring.) There’s nary a laugh in The Immigrant and not necessarily much social critique. The film’s intensity comes from its examination of the innocent Ewa as she begins to develop a thick skin, learning what’s required to survive in this land of supposed opportunity.
Unfortunately, Cotillard is a bit too fragile—a bit too Les Misérables—in the role. Without question, The Immigrant has a melodramatic edge to it, but there remains something too ethereal and overwrought about the actress in the role. Those exact qualities have worked so well for her in the past, whether it’s her Oscar-winning turn in La Vie en Rose or her idealized love interests in Midnight in Paris and Inception, but in The Immigrant they prove distracting, separating her from the bone-dry realism around her.
Her costars fare better, as they seem to tap into the era’s grim urgency far better. For a few too many years now, Renner has been coasting on his rugged stoicism, which in movies like The Hurt Locker can suggest a tortured soul—but in lesser work can leave him resembling a block of concrete on screen. The Immigrant gives him room to move around, and he delivers a performance that’s quietly charming but also forceful in a Brando-esque way. By comparison, Phoenix may resort to his trademark sneer-whisper routine some, and this certainly isn’t work to the level of The Master or Two Lovers, but he sneakily navigates the movie’s most moving (and surprising) emotional arc, ultimately turning Bruno into a figure that’s far more tragic than would originally be imagined.
For such a gorgeous, thoughtful film, though, The Immigrant doesn’t quite soar the way it should. Ultimately, it’s the script, written by Gray with the late Richard Menello, which proves to be this movie’s undoing. For all its serious purpose, The Immigrant isn’t a particularly gripping story—it has the elements of melodrama but not the juice. As a result, the film is more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one—Ewa’s problems always sympathetic but never quite heartbreaking or enraging. Gray’s slow-burn style risks this kind of reaction, of course, and when he’s working at the height of his powers, like on Two Lovers, it can lead to an ending that’s absolutely devastating. The Immigrant’s finale is similarly poignant—its final shot is truly haunting—but even here the movie feels more intelligent than gut-wrenching. Such a beautiful movie—and so cold, too.
Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray, Richard Menello
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Angela Sarafyan
Release Date: Screening in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival