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The emotional and moral price of the immigrant experience, circa 1921 in New York, is expressed in quietly wrenching terms in The Immigrant, James Gray’s sensitively observed melodrama about a Polish woman forced to run a gauntlet of degrading experiences to secure a foothold in the New World. Enhanced by a splendidly atmospheric recreation of the Lower East Side, the intimately focused work is anchored by another superior performance by Marion Cotillard, which, one can be sure, The Weinstein Co. will spotlight to build the often downbeat, slightly off-kilter film into a draw in specialized release.
Alternately called “Low Life” and “The Nightingale” before receiving its final title, The Immigrant structurally resembles the sorts of highly dramatic women’s stories that were old Hollywood staples for actresses such as Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, in which female characters had to endure endless trials and tribulations, usually at the hands of unreliable men, before emerging stronger if not unscathed.
Gray is hardly afraid of intense emotions — he repeatedly employs operatic excerpts on the soundtrack and creates a moving scene in which Enrico Caruso performs for detainees on Ellis Island. But the film, which he co-wrote with the late Richard Menello, so vividly evokes an historical context that the desperation of Cotillard’s initially timid but persevering character, fresh Polish arrival Ewa Cybulski, acquires far more realistic and mordant colorings than most such characters did in the past.
Things go badly for the Cybulski sisters from the moment they set foot on Ellis Island. In scenes actually shot at the historic gateway to the United States, Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is instantly quarantined with a lung disease, while Ewa is told she’ll be sent right back to Europe due to reports that she “may be a woman of bad morals” due to her behavior on the crossing.
However, there’s a strange fellow hovering around who notices her and bribes an official to admit her into his custody. Obviously an operator, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) is also charming and persuasive in both English and Yiddish, not that Ewa has much choice but place herself in his hands. He takes her straight to the heart of his largely Jewish neighborhood, which has been beautifully rendered by production designer Happy Massee and bathed in a sepia glow by cinematographer Darius Khondji in a way that unavoidably summons memories of The Godfather—Part II, the relevant parts of which took place very nearby.
The tightly-wound Bruno oversees a Prohibition-era bar and theater, the elegant trappings of which merely put a pretty cover on its peep-show nature and the availability of the girls after hours. Loose woman or not, Ewa is so traumatized that she recoils even at Bruno’s attempt to hug her, so he goes easy on her by breaking her in with a petrified teenager whose wealthy father fears is “not manly.”
Reliant upon Bruno for lodgings and money, Ewa tries to escape to an uncle and aunt in Brooklyn but is instead turned in by the uncle due to her shameful reputation, which gets her sent back to Ellis Island in time for the Caruso concert, a wonderful sequence in which opera singer Joseph Calleja magnificently impersonates the legendary performer. Also on the bill is Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), who does a great levitation act. Turns out Orlando used to play at Bruno’s club but was bounced out, so once Bruno saves Ewa from deportation again, this time upon her agreement to work as a prostitute on a 50/50 basis, the rival men are pitted against one another over a woman other men have all the time.
The dramatic dynamics become a bit dodgy in the second hour. Banished from the club, Bruno pimps his girls from under a bridge in Central Park while the two men go at each other and Ewa can only bide her time until her sister is released. As energetically realized by Phoenix in significant change of pace from his last film, The Master, Bruno is a vivid character, increasingly desperate financially and over his unrequited feelings for Ewa, who bluntly says she doesn’t like him.
Although Renner makes him initially engaging, Orlando is clearly a man with a past who is trying to make a change. Unfortunately, his personal demons are not sufficiently identified or explored, so that he comes off as too simplistic a nice guy who wants to save Ewa from Bruno and herself but may or may not have what it takes. Orlando’s lack of a fuller dimension somewhat imbalances the film as the drama deepens.
In the end, the one character with real depth is Ewa, a woman who was traumatized in Poland and is once again in New York. Hollow-cheeked and ashen, she is daily debased — “You helped your sister today!,” Bruno cheerfully says — and hates herself. In the most moving scene, Ewa goes to confession and admits to her “many, many sins” and to her suspicion that she may go to hell as a result (insidiously, Bruno is able to listen in on her anguished admissions).
Speaking in a completely convincing Polish accent with a slight hint of German due to her character’s origins in Silesia and at times speaking in Polish, Cotillard makes the movie, creating a haunted figure who may one day be able to go on to a new phase but is certainly permanently marked by her multiple harrowing ordeals. With her eyes and body, Cotillard indelibly registers the enormous price Ewa pays for a shot at a new life.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: Autumn (The Weinstein Co.)
Production: Keep Your Head, Kingsgate Films
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Yelena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Ilia Volok, Angela Sarafyan, Joseph Calleja
Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Richard Menello
Producers: Greg Shapiro, Christopher Woodrow, Anthony Katagas, James Gray
Executive producers: Agnes Mentre, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Hoyt David Morgan, Bruno Wu, Len Blavatnik, Jacob Pechenik
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Happy Massee
Costume designer: Patricia Norris
Editor: John Axelrad
Music: Chris Spelman
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