Review: The Immigrant

THE IMMIGRANT

It’s no secret that coming to the United States as foreigner at the turn of the 20th century was no simple venture. Many who arrived were turned away, and those that were fortunate enough to be admitted often found themselves without direction in the new world. All the fantasies of hope and opportunity can be erased in an instant. Indeed, the arduous process of making a new home for oneself in America was a true rite of passage. It is the first steps of this journey that James Gray envisions in The Immigrant, a tale whose beats read closer to melodrama than bracing reality, but is emotionally nestled in the layered motivations of its characters.

In 1921, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island from Poland, dreaming like so many others of starting a new life. Their aspirations are quickly cut short as authorities split them up, Magda for tuberculosis and Ewa for her “questionable morals,” threatening both deportation. While she can’t reach her sister, Ewa catches the eye of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who occasionally works with immigration. He makes a deal to sneak Ewa into the country, and brings her to his home in New York City, offering her work in order to pay for her sister’s release. Although he is thoroughly mannered and ostensibly benevolent, Bruno is also a pimp, forcing Ewa into his ring of prostitutes and stage performers. With no other choice, Ewa is gently bullied into submission by Bruno, robbed of any sense of her own self. She sees no hope until one day she encounters a magician named Emil (Jeremy Renner), who also happens to be Bruno’s cousin. When Emil rejoins with Bruno’s performing troupe, their competing sympathies for Ewa come to a head, and her fate in America will be decided.

Few films in America today are made in the unabashed style of The Immigrant. At once both romantic in its visual language, yet melancholy in its storytelling, the film certainly recalls the American melodramas of the 1950s, with hearts worn on their sleeves. Ewa’s journey is grueling, but it is also touched with a personal grace. Perhaps the overt theatrics go out of their way in communicating the emotional arc of the story, but that takes nothing away from the three lead performers. Marion Cotillard’s expressive eyes may never have been of better use then they are here, a clear guide to a pure soul corrupted by a life of sin. A scene in which Ewa goes to confession, the shot held in constant close up displays Cotillard at her most vulnerable. On the other side of the spectrum is Phoenix as Bruno, whose textured work yields another exceptional performance. Bruno’s motivations are complex, believing in his ability to help Ewa, but he is also unwilling to let her escape his grasp. His overly formal exterior hides deep personal insecurities, which boil over as Emil enters the picture. The inclusion of Emil as Bruno’s cousin feels somewhat too convenient for the eventual love triangle, and he isn’t as fleshed out as the two others, but Renner is quite good nonetheless, a genuine beacon of light for Ewa.

A great deal of the style of The Immigrant can be attributed to its look and Darius Khondji’s photography is strikingly evocative. It initially resembles Gordon Willis’ sepia hued work on The Godfather Part II a bit too much, but it eventually comes into its own, especially in some of the near monochromatic night scenes. To its own standard, The Immigrant achieves its narrative goals, and its climax certainly feels earned. However, its difficult to say if this single story speaks to the immigrant experience at large. Yes, not everyone who came through Ellis Island went through the same physical journey that Ewa endured, and it’s true that some may have experienced similar emotional trials. While The Immigrant is beautifully performed and impeccably crafted, it often feels isolated when it should be all encompassing.

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~ by romancinema on May 26, 2014.

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