THE IMMIGRANT (2013, directed by James Gray, 120 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Director James Gray’s new film The Immigrant has the whiff of classic to it, perhaps because watching fresh-faced lovelies fall prey to exploitation has been the stuff of great cinema since Lilian Gish first wilted for D.W. Griffith. With the gifted French actress Marion Cotillard at his disposal, Gray works up a lot of steam in this Ellis Island historical piece but he lacks the insight for character or the temperament for melodrama to make his dour little tale fire on all cylinders.
Arriving at Ellis Island from Poland in 1921, Ewa (Cotillard) is separated from her tubercular sister and nearly deported before Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) steps in and offers to help her find her way in the New World. Bruno first offers her sewing work but actually he runs a seedy little burlesque theater that is a front for a brothel. Ewa is isolated from anyone she knows and she needs money for her sister’s treatment so the slide toward prostitution has a grim inevitability about it. Hope lies in the the wings in the form of Emil (Jeremy Renner), an illusionist who takes a quick fancy to Ewa, bringing him nose-to-nose with the increasingly-smitten Bruno. As Ewa’s life gets more desperate and degrading, the question becomes which man holds the key to her fate?
The premise is ripe for high drama but The Immigrant never really finds the momentum it needs to propel us through its story. The problem is rooted in the character of Ewa, who has a certain resourcefulness (she quickly snatches a pick from the coal bin to hide under her pillow) but in general is left to blow in the wind between her two potential suitors. Her freedom seems to slip away piece-by-piece and by the mid-way point the film threatens to turn into a feminist spin on 12 Years a Slave, with Ewa’s life representing all the brutality dished out upon women historically. Gray’s previous films tended to be tough guy-driven affairs so it is no surprise that Ewa never really becomes a fully-formed character despite being at the center of the story. Some male directors can see beyond the pretty surfaces of women (and Cotillard suffers beautifully indeed) but Gray, who also co-wrote The Immigrant, does not prove to be among them.
Phoenix, Gray’s go-to leading man (this is their fourth film together), nearly takes over the film with one of his patently twitchy performances as the Jewish fixer Bruno. Ewa ‘s character has nothing to do but emotionally ice over and occasionally dare to hope, but Bruno is living a kaleidoscope of emotions. We study Bruno as we try to discern how deep his manipulations run and as the film trudges on we watch his withered soul fall in love with Ewa while fighting fear and self-loathing on the brutal streets of 1920s New York. Gray battles to steer the film away from melodrama yet it is in the moments that he milks the life-and-death theatrics that the film overcomes cinematographer Darius Khondji’s dreary earth tones and springs to life.
Ultimately it is Ewa’s story though, and despite Phoenix’s Bruno occasionally stealing the show, having her under-nourished character at its center is to the film’s detriment. Cotillard delivers everything that star power can supply but ultimately she is no match for Gray’s inability to get to the emotional core of her journey. The Immigrant may be Gray’s first film with a female protagonist but Gray still summons more humanity from his male exploiter’s tumultuous soul than he can imbue in that mysterious thing called woman.