The Immigrant does not look like a typical James Gray film (Little Odessa, Two Lovers, The Yards) except for the presence of Joaquin Phoenix, with whom he has a close friendship and working relationship. The setting is familiar territory for him, a gritty New York City. But the timing is the 1920’s during prohibition in the lower east side teeming with impoverished immigrants speaking a multitude of languages. The old world look is created by the brilliant cinematography of Darius Khondji who uses a muted palette and rich shadows to capture the beauty in the carefully designed period costumes and sets of crowded streets in all of their decrepitude and gas-lit menace.
Not least to have its beauty captured is the marvelous face of Marion Cotillard which illuminates every frame in which she appears and lingers in the mind when she is not. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant, just arriving on the boat to Ellis Island with her sister, Belva. When she is separated from her sister, who is put in quarantine for a chest disease (probably tuberculosis) and then finds that her aunt and uncle are not there to meet her, she is bereft, confused and terrified. So when the smooth and courtly Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to her rescue pretending to be an ”immigrant assistance” official she willingly follows him to his not very official-looking tenement apartment. There she finds an assortment of women, and one precocious child who all seem to have some relationship to Bruno. He gives her a bed in his flat and promises her a job in his theatre as a seamstress.
Bruno, as it turns out, is the master of ceremonies of his burlesque theatre, Bandits Roost, a fairly sleazy dive which serves bootleg whiskey and a lot of tits and ass (and sometimes more) to the gentlemen in the audience who are often city officials who are getting special favors in order to turn a blind eye on Bruno’s operation. The women in the company are the same women living in Bruno’s building. As the story unfolds it becomes evident that his real relationship to them all is that of a pimp to his girls who are expected to do whatever is necessary to keep up appearances as a burlesque company. It has become a symbiotic relationship.
The fact that Ewa knows no one and is desperate to earn enough money to pay for her sister’s treatment to get her released from Ellis Island forces her to make some agonizing decisions and do things which are completely against her deeply Catholic beliefs. The depths of Bruno’s depraved immorality are revealed when his cousin, Orlando, the magician (Jeremy Rennert) appears on the scene and is captivated by Ewa and offers her an alternative to the wily Bruno. But things go terribly wrong and we realize she is exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome when Bruno finally confesses the extent of his involvement in every terrible thing that has happened to her and she finds it in herself to forgive him.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno is a riveting study in suave amorality and Jeremy Rennet is a marvelous garrulous Orlando. The contrast with Marion Cotillard’s whose quietly tormented Ewa is haunting and luminous with her ravishing pale face and large eloquently expressive eyes which speak volumes.
If this all feels operatic, that is because the inspiration for making this film was opera and when Gray met Marion Cotillard he knew he had to create a role for her. The screenplay which the director co-wrote with Richard Menello is based on stories told to him by his grandparents. The attention to period detail is impressive and often achieved by interspersing vintage footage. The soundtrack is wonderfully evocative and subtle. The story has all of the high drama we expect in opera as well as the subtle possibilities in the best of film in this exploration of the fluidity of conscience, loyalty, betrayal and morality. It is an intelligent and beautiful film about a pure soul surrounded by Dickensian conditions and venal desperate people who manages to maintain the purity of her heart even as she must compromise her actions. At two hours I could have happily seen more.
Review by Belle McIntyre