The Immigrant is a melodrama done right; stately and beautiful, with some great performances from leads Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. Following the story of a poor Polish immigrant in New York in the 1920s, it is simultaneously a homage to the early golden age of American cinema, and the many similar films shown to an audience who knew, first hand, the hardships of surviving in a new land.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: James Gray
Screenplay: James Gray, Ric Menello.
Runtime: 120 minutes.
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner.
Plot: Ewa is newly arrived from Poland, as a refugee from the turmoil created by the now ended First World War. Huddled with her sister at Ellis Island, they are quickly separated and Ewa is successful in smuggling herself out with the help of the mysterious Bruno. But she is quick to realise that Bruno is a pimp, running a group of immigrants turned prostitutes like herself that must do everything they can to survive. Ewa must make some hard choices, in an attempt to save her sister and herself, and fend off the attentions of Bruno’s rival, Orlando.
Review: James Gray’s The Immigrant is a stately and beautifully composed melodrama; a sad but enjoyable film that delivers on the promise of a genre that is too often associated with poorly made and manipulative films. Here the directorial touch is light and the catharsis of the audience genuine; assisted by powerful performances from its leads and delivering a carefully constructed aesthetic experience that elevates the film above its humble plot. It seems strange to say that such a tragic and emotional tale is above all a relaxing, enjoyable experience, but it is; and the film is, at least in part, a loving homage to the early golden age of film studios where tales of immigrant love and loss were produced by the dozen to appeal to America’s newly arrived citizens. That evocation of a golden age is almost literal, as every indoor frame of the film is bathed the golden amber of lives long forgotten and rooms long left. It is hard to believe that these stories, almost mythical to us now, were common and everyday experiences for those fleeing from conflict or poverty nearly a hundred years ago.
The Immigrant does justice to the hard choices and struggle to survive of the asylum seeker, albeit in a rather sensational manner. The plot follows Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Clara (Jicky Schnee) as they arrive on Ellis Island to seek a new home and opportunities in the United States. The two are quickly separated, as Clara is suspected of suffering from tuberculosis, and Ewa is smuggled out of detention by an unusually sympathetic local, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). A particularly touching moment arrives when she is asked her country of origin by an immigration official, and answers ‘Silesia.’ His response is terse, ‘Poland,’ in a powerful reminder of how one’s nationality and a foundation of identity could disappear overnight in the conflicts that engulfed Europe. Ewa is quick to learn what her freedom has cost her, as Bruno operates a ring of immigrants turned prostitutes at a local burlesque theatre. Ewa has hard choices to make, although Bruno is smitten with her and accommodating. But the catalyst of the drama is the arrival of Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), who captures Ewa’s heart but has a dark history of conflict with Bruno. Once the stage is set, the results are guaranteed to be tragic – but The Immigrant is wise in taking its time to get there, not slowly but with a masterful pace set by Gray.
Melodramas have a deservedly bad name for a good reason, and I’ve often hurled the description at a particularly bad film as emblematic of everything that might be wrong with it. The reason for this is the manipulation and cliché that come along with the genre; most melodramas aim at creating a rollercoaster ride of emotion, with very little through or credibility to accompany them. Too often originality is the greatest enemy of melodrama, because it complicates and fragments the well of broad, emotional sympathy that a melodrama relies upon. However, it doesn’t have to be that way; and James Gray’s The Immigrant is a slow, stately essay in the melodrama done right and done respectably. It is a reminder that any genre of film, in the right hands, can be something both exceptional and enjoyable. The Immigrant is certainly that.
The performances themselves are also blessedly understated and skilful. At the centre of the film, Cotillard shines as a simultaneously fragile and vulnerable yet steely heroine, drawing upon a century’s worth of similar performances to create a pitch-perfect characterisation. This is counterpointed by Phoenix who is, as usual, barely able to contain that passionate intensity he brings to the screen and is well cast here. This is also balanced out by Renner’s performance as Orlando (looking not unlike a young Bill Murray), who is sensitive and gentle where Bruno is insistent and threatening. As a whole the cast works, each complimenting the other’s strengths and balancing out weaknesses that might tip the scales into overly emotional territory. Sure, some of the twists and turns at the back end of the film come across as convenient or a little too incredible; but the whole holds together nicely, and Gray closes the film with an image I thought breathtakingly beautiful. For every slight misstep – ‘He suffers for me - so I am learning the power of forgiveness’ Ewa opines at one point – there is a redeeming image, like Ewa biting her tongue to coat her lips in reddest blood, and pinching her cheeks to give them colour, a poetic preparation which wordlessly conveys her situation.
‘I have gone through so many trials – has it become a sin for me to try so hard to survive?’ Ewa asks, during the dark moments of the film. But this light and shade is carried along so skilfully, showing a victim straining for independence, like the heroine of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, which is coyly quoted during the film. It is a moving story, but one which never quite reaches the masterpiece status it seems so desperately to yearn for. Despite that, it is a film worth seeking out, if only to admire the skill with which Gray pulls together the elements of his craft to create a truly beautiful film.
Rating: Three and a half stars.