The Immigrant is an old-fashioned gem of a motion picture that you probably haven’t heard anything about. It’s time to rectify that.
Back in May of 2013, The Immigrant premiered at the Cannes Film Festival with a respectful, but muted response from critics. The film has continued to play the festival circuit, but its release into theaters has remained a question mark. At one point there were rumors that it would release on television or even straight to DVD. Though its distributor, The Weinstein Company, appears to have given up hope on the film’s award prospects (just about the only reason they back anything nowadays), they have deemed it worthy of an extremely limited release, chucking it out this past weekend with little fanfare or advanced buzz. It’s a shame really, as The Immigrant is a staggeringly beautiful period melodrama harkening back to the Hollywood of old, where powerful stories of women fighting for survival in a world ruled by men were considered tales worth telling. Anchored by an emotionally naked performance by Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant deserves far better than to be thrown out into the summer garbage heap.
The Immigrant tells the story of sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) who have fled their home country of Poland in 1921 and set their sights on immigrating to America with hopes for a better life. Upon their arrival on Ellis Island it is discovered that Magda has lung disease and will have to be quarantined for six months before determining if she will be fit to enter the country. Ewa, whose family in America did not show up to receive her upon her arrival, is set to be deported based on reports from her ship ride over that she is a woman of “low moral character”. A mysterious man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) saves her from her fate and pulls her out of line, offering her work at his theatre. With nowhere to turn, Ewa gives herself over to him and is drawn into a world of gaudy burlesque and eventual prostitution. Though she does try to escape to her Aunt and Uncle living in Brooklyn before being turned over to the police because of her reputation, Ewa is forced to use Bruno and her body as a means to an end. Without money, she has no hope of ever securing her sister’s release from Ellis Island. Wallowing in a pit of despair, Ewa’s life is turned upside down when she meets a romantic magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s cousin and rival, who may be her only hope.
As directed by James Gray, The Immigrant is handsomely mounted with flourishes of operatic delights. The film is a melodrama, but it never falls into the trap of overbearing sentimentality or outplayed emotions. Its stakes are high and its dramatics hard-hitting, but it is anchored in authentic period detail and honest, deeply vulnerable performances. Marion Cotillard is like an open wound here, completely committed to the despair of her situation while giving the audience flashes of hope through her unwavering dedication to her sister. It is that journey and the promise of their reunion that keeps The Immigrant from being a depressing, seedy slog. Cotillard is one of the finest actors of her generation and her work as Ewa is among the best performances of her career. Joaquin Phoenix turns in a strange, stilted, and sleazy performance as Bruno. There is a modern quality about Phoenix that is at odds with the period trappings of the piece, but that only makes the performance all the more uncomfortable. Bruno holds his cards close to the chest and for a while it’s hard to tell what exactly Phoenix is playing, but as the film grows so does the performance. By the picture’s end Phoenix has unleashed a lifetime of pent-up pain and torment out into the open. He becomes a sympathetic monster who is a product of his circumstances. Phoenix’s work in the film deserves a close study and it is likely a performance that will grow in estimation over time. Renner’s work is pivotal to the mechanics of the story, but brief. It is a charming performance that is all too limited in a film filled with heartache.
As strong as the acting is, the film’s crafts are even more astonishing. Lensed by the great Darius Khondji, the film is awash in an amber glow deeply reminiscent of the flashback sequences in The Godfather Part 2. Many of the shots that take place on Ellis Island seem to directly lift imagery from the late Gordon Willis’s career-defining work. The production design and art direction by Happy Massee and Pete Zumba respectively is sumptuously detailed, with the added benefit of using many real life locations including Ellis Island itself. The costume designs by Patricia Norris are gritty and organic, breathing life to the images. This is one gorgeous motion picture.
Though Gray is working in a genre that seems long forgotten by most Hollywood suits, he is able to make the old new again thanks to his commitment to genuine period and character authenticity. The film is embedded with deeper insights into the immigrant experience, including this country’s hang up with race and religion which continues to cruelly define us in this modern age. The Immigrant is a film that deserves people’s attention. Not every film has to win an Oscar to be worth its weight in gold, which is something those over at The Weinstein Company need to remember from time to time. Considering they now have the reported disaster that is Grace of Monaco to worry about, perhaps they should take the time to reevaluate their catalogue and give films like The Immigrant the backing they deserve. As of now, The Immigrant is stuck in limited release limbo. If it is playing anywhere near your area seek it out. The rewards will be many.