“The Immigrant,” director James Gray’s spectral drama, gives the audience an insight into the side of 1920s New York City that is left out in the glitz and glamour of the likes of “The Great Gatsby.” Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) emigrate from Poland to the United States in 1921. Upon reaching Ellis Island, doctors discover Magda has tuberculosis and the sisters are separated while Magda is quarantined. Suddenly alone in a fast and dangerous city, the beautiful Ewa is approached by nefarious and charming Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). After agreeing to help care for Ewa in her time of need, he forces her into prostitution. Ewa allows herself to do things that violate her Catholic faith, all in the hope of surviving in America and being reunited with her sister.
To complicate matters, Ewa and Bruno, two strong-willed individuals, maintain an emotional and perplexing relationship. Both characters prove to be quite dynamic as the film progresses. Ewa shows a quiet ferocity and Bruno displays a kind of awkward tenderness towards her. However, this tenderness turns to seething jealousy when his cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner) arrives.
A spirited stage magician, Orlando falls for Ewa immediately and she is equally enchanted by him. This new relationship becomes the catalyst for Ewa to try to alter her destiny. Orlando helps Ewa restore her hopes for a brighter future, becoming her only chance to escape the tragic life she was given.
The actors overall do an impressive job of scratching the surface of the immigrant experience in this drama. Despite a few awkward plot moments, the film is intimate in its telling of Ewa’s first encounters in America and all the more affecting for it.
Cotillard captures the passion and intensity that is necessary for such a dark and complex plot line. Equally impressive is Phoenix’s portrayal. He takes on the unpredictable Bruno with grace, and it is quite remarkable to watch him turn on a dime in various scenes. Renner meanwhile, is charming as the film’s trickster, and it’s a nice change of pace when he arrives. Together, these three actors create a shockingly real love triangle. This film is a tumultuous emotional commitment, and the actors make it quite easy to become invested in Ewa’s heartbreaking story.
As a whole, the visual details of the film are its most impressive aspect. Gray’s portrayal of New York in 1921 is created through the use of rich, dark colors and manipulations of light and shadow. Many scenes are saturated in a sepia hue, adding to the dreamlike aura of the film.
The first scene brings the audience into this complex world: vast influxes of refugees in the 1920s, endless lines, empty faces, many undetermined fates and opportunists like Bruno preying on the innocent and unsuspecting. Gray leaves no visual detail neglected, and thus he is able to better capture the film’s dark, gritty and lively moments.
The film’s theme of compromise as the price of progress in America is powerfully thought provoking. There is a raw emotion that Cotillard brings to her resistance of America’s expectations for her that is both defiant and disheartening for the American viewer. With this film, Gray provides an alternative portrayal of what it means to be hopeful in difficult situations. At different points throughout the film, we can see the pains of reality etching themselves on Cotillard’s face.
“The Immigrant” is less of a love story, as the film posters may suggest, and more a tale of sin, redemption and salvation in one of the most important cultural moments in this country’s history. Aside from the poignant performances, this film is certainly worth seeing as a reminder that, for some people, the American dream is about nothing but survival.