Director: James Gray
Runtime: 120 minutes
Well at least James Gray knows how to capture a time period. Even when the results are less than stellar - as in Blood Ties, which he wrote - the man does have a knack for bringing the recent past to life. Yet rather than stay in his comfort zone, Gray has chosen to branch out with his latest film, The Immigrant, which premiered at last year's Cannes film festival. Gray has leapfrogged over the time periods of his other films, and landed in the early part of the 20th century, a time when Ellis Island was filled to the brim with people from nations across the Atlantic.
One of those people is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), who has fled to America with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to escape their troubled homeland. Yet Ellis Island proves less welcoming than Lady Liberty's statue and her promises. Magda is quarantined, and Ewa's contacts in America are nowhere to be found. Ewa's American Dream is all but snuffed out at the finish line, when she's rescued by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises her shelter, work, and money. It's the last item that Ewa latches onto, as it's Magda's only hope of survival while trapped in the hospital on the island.
Ewa quickly learns, however, that Bruno's line of work may be a bit on the seedy side. The soft-spoken, off-kilter man runs a small theater, which of course is but a flashy display case for his cavalcade of prostitutes. Bruno does his best to convince Ewa that she's becoming part of a family, though she stoically tries her hardest to remain apart from the group.
Despite a runtime of two hours, Gray lays the basic framework down quite briskly, even as he takes time to show larger images of 1920's Manhattan. Ewa and Bruno's relationship is an uneasy one, but it allows for interesting interplay between the film's two leads. Phoenix, though at times going a bit too broad and whispery as Bruno, does solid work as the more dynamic of the pair. His caring brand of possessiveness, balanced with Ewa's constant deflections, creates a unique set up. Even when a third party is introduced, The Immigrant never becomes a full-blown love triangle, or even a romance at all.
It is, fundamentally, a story of how Cotillard's fresh-off-of-the-boat immigrant copes with being the lowest member on a food chain. More established immigrants (including Bruno) manage the newcomers, while also doing their best to please the authorities so as to stay out of trouble. Bruno may be Ewa's boss of sorts, but even he reports to an older woman at the theater. He also deals with Jewish slurs on a regular basis. He may be a pimp, but he's not a particularly powerful one.
However, The Immigrant ultimately belongs to Cotillard, despite the overwhelmingly passive nature of the role. Ewa's goal is a simple one - to help (and possibly free) Magda - and Cotillard's blankness works to her advantage. This isn't a woman who can afford to joyously chase after her own dreams; she has to put her nose to the grindstone and get to work, whatever unpleasantness may ensue.
The actress' work is mostly quiet, the polar opposite of her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf, but Cotillard does a lovely job of managing Ewa's restraint. In the moments where she cracks, the actress refuses to go for big moments, even in a scene that is practically designed for Oscar-begging histrionics. Speaking both English and Polish, Cotillard is the heart of the film, and the limited manner in which she opens up is mirrored in the film's own emotional tone. When we speak of actors "owning" a film, it's usually about roles that require big flashes of emotion. With The Immigrant, Cotillard proves that it's possible to do this in near silence.
Gray's direction - classical and elegant - understands this. Sadly, his writing has a much less solid foundation. Instead of merely allowing Ewa and Bruno's relationship to build into a natural display of unrequited affection and exploitation, Gray introduces a second rate magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner). Renner is perfectly charming in the role, and makes you wish he had more screen time. Yet, enjoyable as he is, Orlando gets in the way of the main duo's relationship, instead of adding another layer to the drama.
And as much as Gray keeps the story going (the pacing is stately, but certainly not sluggish), certain moments are rushed, and left feeling dramatically weightless. Gray's characters could use a bit more depth as well. There's a great divide in Ewa regarding her Catholic faith and her line of work, but Gray doesn't really dig into it aside from one notable scene (and there it's Cotillard, not the script, that makes it work). Though I'd consider The Immigrant a success, it is a strange, frustrating sort of success. The right pieces are there, but the script doesn't always do enough with them (that, or it deals with them too briefly).
Production values, however, are very much a triumph. Despite a modest budget, Gray's vision of the 20s is as lush as Once Upon a Time in America or the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II. Sets and costumes are handsomely detailed, and Darius Khondji's sepia and gold-toned photography gives it all a nuanced, painterly quality. On a purely aesthetic level, The Immigrant is worthy of joining the ranks of the films it's so clearly paying homage to. Yet Gray's wishy-washy script trips the enterprise up one too many times. The Immigrant certainly never falls on its face, but it has enough unbalanced moments that cause the end result to be an overeager imitation, rather than a modern classic.