Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: James Gray
Stars: Marion Cotillard, Joaquim Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Antoni Corone, Robert Clohessy, Angela Sarafyan.
Set in New York in 1921, this is a tale of heartache and heartbreak, and also looks at the hardscrabble existence and struggle to survive as part of the wave of new migrants arriving in America after the Great War, hoping to start a new life in the land of hope and opportunity. It explores issues of class, social status, crime, and the experience of newly arrived immigrants who were ripe for exploitation from more ruthless pimps and shrewd businessmen.
As the grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived in new York in 1923, The Immigrant obviously resonates strongly with writer/director James Gray (Little Odessa, etc) and has a deeply personal quality.
Ewa Cybulska (Oscar winner played by Marion Cotillard, from Ma Vie En Rose, Inception, etc) is a newly arrived migrant from Poland. Her younger sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is suffering from tuberculosis. When they are being processed at Ellis Island, Magda is sent off to be quarantined for six months, and being a single woman of “low morals” Ewa is threatened with deportation. Alone and with no-one to turn to for help, Ewa is ripe for the attentions of shady businessmen and pimps who trawl Ellis Island for such victims.
Enigmatic businessman Bruno Weiss (Joaquim Phoenix) comes to her rescue, offering a chance at a better life with his theatre company. But Bruno’s shady Bandit’s Roost theatre is little more than a risque burlesque show and illegal brothel. Eva initially resists Bruno’s attempts to force her into working for him, but she finds life is hard and money hard to earn and is slowly drawn into a life of prostitution.
Returned to Ellis Island again to face deportation, she catches the eye of dashing stage magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner, from The Hurt Locker, etc), who happens to be Bruno’s cousin. He is more romantic and sincere than his coarse cousin, and he also offers Eva the chance of a better life. Eva finds herself caught between the two men, which has tragic consequences. The film has a bleak and melodramatic quality as it delves into Ewa’s predicament.
The Immigrant is the fourth film Gray has made starring Phoenix, who worked on his three previous dramas – The Yards, We Own The Night and Two Lovers. Gray seems to get the best out of the unpredictable actor. Following his volatile and sensational performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix adds another dark, complex and reprehensible character to his resume with his performance here as the slimy, brutal, cruel and selfish Bruno.
In a role written especially for her, Cotillard has a suitably haunted quality, and she projects a vulnerability, naivete, an inner strength and a resilience. Renner brings charm and a boyish quality to his performance as the impulsive Orlando.
Gray has a classic approach to his narrative. Like the late, great Sidney Lumet before him (a director Gray admires) who shot many of his gritty dramas on the streets of New York, Gray captures the period detail perfectly. Happy Massee’s production design recreates the crowded and grimy streets of New York in the early part of the 20th century. The Immigrant is an unrelentingly grim, downbeat and bleak period piece that offers a deconstruction of the tarnished American dream. Ace cinematographer Darius Khondji has shot the whole thing in sombre and muted tones of brown, which perfectly evokes the era and also enhances the tone of the film.