The Immigrant (Review)

2014

120 min

United States

Director: James Gray

Writer: James Gray, Ric Menello

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner

Release Date: May 24, 2013 (Cannes Film Festival) / March 16, 2014 (United States)


The Immigrant tells an emotionally raw story through a classically cinematic lens. Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix continue to be among the best of their respective generations and writer/director James Gray raises the bar on his career.

James Gray delivers his grandest film to date in the form of this softly-lit and glossily-glazed immigrant story circa 1920s New York. Two hopeful Polish immigrants are stopped before granted entry into the United States. Magda is quarantined with lung disease and Ewa is about to be deported when a stranger with sway inspects her line. Ewa is played by Marion Cotillard. She is verbally grateful but silently skeptical of the generosity that she begged of Bruno, he's played by Joaquin Phoenix. 

Bruno takes Ewa to an apartment building that he appears to operate. He gives her a room and tells her he's going off to the theater. We learn with Ewa that he manages a host of showgirls who can earn additional money after the curtains have closed. She needs money to get her sister out and a foreseeable nonetheless dire situation unfolds ever so elegantly. 

Gray wrote the script for Cotillard and Phoenix (the latter a Gray regular) and that becomes strikingly apparent with each additional scene. Gray has compared Cotillard to Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Like Falconetti she's capable of acting with just her eyes. Each darting or doubting glance feels precise and after sacrificing her body for the first time we see her crestfallen demeanor. Ewa might as well be a saint, for Bruno she's precisely that. The consequences for her fallen stature are not shied away from, they are explored. 

Phoenix continues to shake off the ashes from I'm Still Here. After The Master and Her, he's holding one of the hottest streaks in memory. Bruno is much more Freddie Quell than Theodore Twombly. He's troubled but has a way of avoiding trouble and has managed to charm several women to join him thus far. When he lashes out at Ewa on one of her first nights under his roof she is driven to a dark corner like a frightened animal. I admire how The Immigrant avoided "good guys" facing off against "bad guys." All are in differing states of disarray, none feel completely lost nor do they feel completely found. I thought I knew what role Jeremy Renner's Orlando the Magician would play, but I was thinking more in term's of a knight in shining armor than this aforementioned principle.

The film is bookended on Ellis Island with two unforgettable single shots: the first zooming out and the last moving in. This acts as a threshold for this time and place and the countless lives therein while we focus our magnifying glass on one person's story: an immigrant. When all is seen and pondered, The Immigrant feels like a natural title to utter in the same breath as The Godfather: Part II and Once Upon a Time in America. This is the newest American classic, but it feels like it has been around for a long and proven time. Like those cinematic monuments it establishes the country at the time and the fervor of its populace, but it is ultimately content portraying the intimate details of select lives.

It does not matter what you do. You got a right to be happy, Ewa.
— Emil