The story of America is an epic one. There is very little respite to the expansion of its borders and the dangerous struggle of its people against nature, its enemies, and each other. Movies take little slices out of that narrative and usually glorify it. The Immigrant (2014) takes a tiny sliver and tells the story of a young woman, just arrived from Poland, who is pulled into a harsh world of immoral earnings to protect her and her sister. Glory is not the goal to this film. It tells a hard story honestly, in a traditional, old-cinema style (or veneer).
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) come into Ellis Island in the hope of finding their aunt and uncle and starting a new life in America. But Magda is ill and quarantined while Ewa is accused of prostitution and denied entry. She is ‘saved’ by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) who bribes an official to get her off the island. There’s a word about work and getting enough money to get Magda free as well. In short order, Bruno is revealed to be a lewd theater impresario (a generous word) and pimp (an accurate word) who wants Ewa as his “something special”. (More) Trouble arrives in the form of Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician and soft-shoe dancer, who takes a shine to Ewa. Bruno is brutal, manipulative, and highly insecure while Emil is kind, open, and confident. But over time, there are signs that neither are all they seem.
The promise of James Gray‘s The Immigrant is a cross between the De Niro sequences of The Godfather: Part II (1974) and Sophie’s Choice (1982). Something beautiful and soulful. High expectations. The actors involved are some of the most promising around. On a first viewing–and I hasten to add that it’s worth a couple–that promise was not completely fulfilled. Though this is the vaguest criticism, something did not feel right about the movie. Perhaps it was the competition between the realistic nastiness of Ewa’s situation and the warm, creamy cinematography. Even the look of the film, where I hoped the most for satisfaction, was off. Perhaps it was the fault of the Angelika’s projector, but anything wider than a close up looked unfocused. I guess I’ll have to see it on blu ray.
The color palette does not disappoint and there are at least three strikingly beautiful shots (sadly brief) and the last is the best. The score is very pretty, but was not always well placed. At one point, Ewa is delivering one of her many pleas of desperation accompanied by those mournful strings and I thought, “is this right or is it too right?” Is the score so reminiscent of past period films that it belongs in a good parody of Oscar-bait films? The line between pastiche and schlock can be fine in this genre.
With such a fine list of actors, you might wonder whether this alone deserves your going to the movie. Phoenix’s performance in The Master (2012) was such a performance. While they are strong, very strong, only one scene, again the last one, could be called exceptional. Renner’s casual charm fits a bit awkwardly in a period film. In The Master, there were a number of lines that sounded too full, read out too specifically, as though people “back then” spoke more cleanly and logically. This is a writing style that sounds, to my ear, wrong. The same phenomenon happens in The Immigrant and Phoenix is the victim of it. Cotillard is good, but the role is not a powerful one. It’s the same grim determination that drove Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s role in 12 Years a Slave (2013) without being called upon to flay her sister alive. It’s an interesting comparison because though there is much of the film that goes for harsh realism, Ewa is morally compromised twice. Gray doesn’t go close up to examine her dealing with this uncomfortable job–in one scene, she’s afraid of even the weakest customer, the next she’s casually checking boys for STDs. There is much we can assume and the grand films The Immigrant emulates would be equally sparse on details, but this is not a film of broad strokes. Not with these dark, subtle performances.
Thinking back on the film, the whole thing seemed brief. At a clean two hours long, I can recall five different settings. Hardly enough scope to immerse into the period. I like an emotional movie to breathe, especially if it is supposed to be grimly beautiful. That final shot is roughly what I hoped for the film: full of meaning, technically adept, and emotionally satisfying.
P.s. Dear Angelika, please increase the sound-proofing on your floors. That train is ridiculous.