It’s 1921. Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) sail to New York from their native Poland. They’re escaping their bleak homeland in search of a fresh start. Unfortunately Magda is quarantined at Ellis Island because of suspected lung disease. Meanwhile Ewa is almost deported due to an “incident” on the boat ride over. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) notices her ability to speak English and bribes an officer to let her go. Bruno runs a burlesque show and he hires Ewa to do the sewing. From that point on, their lives intertwine and they will never be the same. Bruno also manages a side business where he arranges, shall we say, appointments with the female performers in the show. Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician who performs at the burlesque house, becomes infatuated with Ewa. Could he be her knight in shining armor? But he also makes waves. This triggers a dark jealous streak in Bruno whose fondness for Ewa has grown over time.
Director James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night) has such a way with these character based dramas. The Immigrant is another fine example. The screenplay details the wants and needs of dissimilar people at odds with one another. James Gray and co-writer Ric Menello previously worked together in 2008 on Two Lovers. The Immigrant is the saga of what three disparate people must do in order to survive. The drama is so affecting. Ewa is that most exquisite of personalities. Seemingly plain and unkempt but with genuine allure, both physically and emotionally. Her beauty shines through. She needs to raise money to get her sister out of the infirmary on Ellis Island. It isn’t long before she succumbs to doing things she’d rather not do. The script reflects upon her moral struggle. How far is she willing to compromise her virtue in exchange for a noble goal? The idea is handled in a fascinating yet respectful way.
Marion Cotillard portrays such sincere yearning. If she is the heart of The Immigrant then Joaquin Phoenix is the soul. In their 4th picture together Director James Gray extracts another brilliant performance from his frequent collaborator. Phoenix is riveting as the morally troublesome Bruno. His behavior includes distasteful business ventures. Yet there is a positive nuance to this mortal that gently persuades the audience to forgive him. His elemental desire to do the best thing for Ewa underlies a palpable tragedy. Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) complicates matters for him considerably. They both pursue Ewa.
The Immigrant is a beautifully realized period film that presents a knotty tangle of ethical decisions. It’s rather understated and probably why director James Gray’s work charms critics over mainstream audiences. The three protagonists are fully realized creations that captivate. What superficially appears like a love triangle is actually much deeper and morally complex. Gray has a talent for extracting raw emotion. Additionally, the production has a nice feel for time and place. Costumes and cinematography superbly add to the historical detail. The filmmaker grew up in New York City and it’s a place he returns to again and again in his movies. This is a story that upholds the promise of America, but doesn’t deny the cold harsh reality.