“The Immigrant,” starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, is one of those prickly period pieces about hard times that gets under your skin and leaves you unsettled long after.
Though its story is far more about survival than love, there is a sense of seduction in director James Gray’s new film, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing quality. Not unlike Bruno Weiss, the dandy who trolls Ellis Island for pretty girls in bad straits, played so well by Phoenix.
Cotillard’s Ewa Cybulska is one of those weary and desperate beauties, a world away from her edgy portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007’s “La Vie en Rose,” which would win her an Oscar. Ewa and her sister, Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk), are just off the boat, still awaiting clearance to enter the country. It’s a compelling opening scene, the endless lines, the empty faces, so many fates hanging in the balance, and opportunists like Bruno plying the sea of humanity like sharks.
The sepia-saturated scene immediately evokes that vast influx of refugees in the ’20s and ’30s. The period detail achieved by production designer Happy Massee, costume designer Patricia Norris, and captured so beautifully by cinematographer Darius Khondji is outstanding. Composer Chris Spelman adds a bluesy jazz-age sound that is terrific – weeping when it needs to, carefree when called for.
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A bad cough that Belva can’t stifle quickly separates the sisters and sets the conflict in motion. Belva’s sent to the hospital ward and marked for deportation. Ewa is likely headed back to Poland as well unless someone steps in to sponsor her. All the while, Bruno is circling. His offer comes at a desperate time for Ewa, his help extended like a favor she is lucky to get. And so begins Ewa’s life in this country – in debt to a stranger, the price of admission a high one, any promise of opportunity in America apparently not meant for her.
Written with Richard Menello, “The Immigrant” is Gray’s most ambitious film. Despite rocky moments and a few ill-fitting pieces, it is intimate in its telling and more affecting for it. As with most of the filmmaker’s work, if Gray has to choose sides, the have-nots will get his vote every time. He’s a good guy to have in your corner. His collaboration with Phoenix – who’s starred in all of Gray’s films except the first, 1994’s “Little Odessa” – continues to deepen, though 2008’s “Two Lovers” remains my favorite.
The New York that Bruno brings Ewa into is a weird mix of the familial and the sinister. He has a troupe of girls who perform in his nudie revue. The house of entertainment is run by Rosie Hertz (Yelena Solovey), matronly toward the girls but shrewd when it comes to business. For a price, the patrons can buy private time. For Ewa, it is one more thing to resist until she can’t.
The theme of compromise as the price of progress in this country is a compelling one. It’s never more sharply drawn than when Bruno is trying to push Ewa into her first assignation. There is an intensity Cotillard brings to her resistance that is both defiant and broken. You can literally see reality etching itself on the actress’ face. Not in great waves, rather the stiffening of her chin, the glare in her eyes, as hope is chipped away.
Though the film is sometimes as fraught as the immigrant experience, in the end, the ideas are so rich, the look so lovely, Ewa’s journey so heartbreakingly real, even the flaws seem to suit it.