Handsome, self-controlled, astonishingly beautiful, and relentlessly downbeat, The Immigrant is a lush, broody period piece that harkens back to the great maternal dramas of the mid-20th century, a stubbornly old-fashioned lovesick tale in which the bonds of passion and family are stretched to their snapping point. Both epic and fine-grained, it’s a well-articulated example of the kind of thing we like to say they just don’t make any more: serious, adult, character-driven, and impassioned.
In 1921, Catholic Polish woman Ewa (Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone) and her sister Magda arrive at Ellis Island, New York City looking for a better life, after escaping their ravaged home in post-World War I Poland. After Magda is quarantined and Ewa is nearly deported, she becomes entangled with Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master) and Emil (Jeremy Renner, The Town), who offer assistance with strings attached.
The Immigrant functions not unlike a Prohibition-era Taxi Driver, with Cotillard as the apprentice hooker, Phoenix as the sweet-talking pimp, and Renner as the would-be savior. Ewa is revealed as someone with a diamond-like temerity, and Cotillard, who often resembles the screen goddesses of the silent era, gives an arrestingly soulful performance. The film raises Cotillard to a select, and appropriately esteemed, pantheon.
Writer-director James Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers) imbues his films with a sturdy poeticism and a stripped-down purity. One of The Immigrant’s primary assets is its texture: a rich fabric of sights and sounds that evoke the look and feel of New York’s underbelly in the early 20th century. DP Darius Khondji’s enticing portraiture makes the characters seem encased in amber. Draped in his luxuriant, golden-hued cinematography like the silks of Lady Liberty’s gown, it plays like an antique photograph come to life with ghosts of the past. If this isn’t Gray’s warmest or wooziest vision to date, it’s perhaps because of the way his purview is so fiercely, obstinately yoked to Ewa’s stalwart mindset.
That blistering fixation on its main character’s grappling with life and mortality is also akin to Roberto Rossellini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bergman. At its best, The Immigrant is not just a mesmerizing meditation on the broken American promise, but a study of the immigrant experience in the country as a seemingly endless series of dehumanizing transactions. The land of opportunity is simultaneously a melting pot where many have been cooked alive. The Immigrant’s complex reckoning of moral decency is fascinating in its brevity.
Although it’s not as florid or overwrought as a period piece about struggling to survive as a newcomer in a foreign land might imply, The Immigrant is a conflicting experience: admirable and powerfully executed in parts, cold and meandering in others. To the point of illogic, it’s earnestly and unabashedly melodramatic to a baffling extent and leaves an audience yearning for more chaos to ensue within its perfectly composed frames. It may be that Gray simply has not learned to colour outside the lines.
Yet The Immigrant earns many of its dissonances. It’s tender and evocative and emotionally restrained; intelligent and wrenchingly real; sublimely sincere and emblematically cinematic; lavishly shot and irresistibly grim. A strangely chimeric movie, The Immigrant reveals its truest colors only in its closing moments, with a splitscreen stunner of a final shot. Faults aside, The Immigrant has a ringing message: Succeeding in America is a dream act.