(Dir. James Gray, United States, 2014)
The Will to Survive
Coming to America has never looked this grim. The year is 1921, and hopeful immigrants Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda Cybulska (Angela Sarafyan) anxiously wait in line on Ellis Island – the gateway to the land of opportunity. So begins James Gray’s The Immigrant – a boldly titled period piece that tells the story of one woman’s struggle to survive in a foreign and hostile land. Unable to suppress her cough, Magda is quickly ripped from her sister’s side and forced into quarantine. Ewa encounters further misfortune as an immigration officer informs her that her aunt and uncle’s address doesn’t exist and that she has been cited with misconduct on the boat ride over. Sent to be unceremoniously deported, Ewa captures the attention of a well-dressed, yet mysterious man who offers to help her. And, so begins a relationship built on transaction, desperation, and one-sided affection that marks the remainder of Gray’s film.
Innocent-looking Ewa is swiftly caught up in the grimy world of burlesque and vaudeville as her rescuer turns out to be a showman and a pimp with a harem full of women. Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) takes a special liking to Ewa, but this attraction doesn’t keep him from manipulating and using her just like the others. He frames her cooperation as the only means of securing her sister’s freedom from the island and likely deportation. Her situation becomes more complicated when she meets Bruno’s cousin, the charming magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner). Both men vie for Ewa’s affections and share equal distrust for the other. Ewa, less motivated by love, must choose between whoever can help her most.
Gray’s film is one vintage time capsule of nostalgia and homage-paying to his influences and cinematic predecessors. The Immigrant is a melodrama of the highest order in the vein of classic Hollywood era pictures. Furthermore, it frequently recalls Coppola’s The Godfather Part II in its depiction of early 20th century immigrant life in New York City. Both Ellis Island and the city are rendered beautifully with Darius Khondji’s sharp, bronze-tinted cinematography. Gray’s entire film is visually arresting; a stunning series of meticulously arranged and shot images fill the screen throughout. And, even though Cotillard delivers a compelling and haunting performance (conveying depths of emotion with those sullen eyes in ways only she can), The Immigrant leaves something to be desired.
It may be a well executed melodrama, but it is still that – a sub-genre that doesn’t typically aspire to high art. Since Gray’s film more than astounds visually (enough cannot be said about the film’s final shot – one for the history books to be sure), it’s the script and even the narrative that seem lacking at times. The dialogue is particularly uneasy in parts, especially delivered by Phoenix or Renner. Cotillard mostly avoids this due to her character’s limited English. And, the film’s story at times reads like a checklist of dramatic cues: an innocent and exploited foreigner in a foreign land, a shifty criminal with connections, a jealous rival bent on exacting revenge, a deadly love triangle, etc. These obligatory devices ultimately keep The Immigrant from uncovering any new territory. And yet, there are a few redeemable qualities to the film’s narrative, namely Gray’s refusal to give in to today’s growing temptation to chronicle of the woes of the supposed American Dream (with a premise so inviting of such obvious dissection, nonetheless) and the moral complexity and ambiguity of Phoenix’s character Bruno.
Ewa’s story is one that inspires deep sympathy for it is also likely the story of many. She, like countless others before and since, comes to America with hope. She stays and continues on in order to survive. Gray fittingly captures these hefty emotions with the tropes of his genre, solid performances from his leads, haunting images, and gorgeous musical cues. (Though one might wonder what compelled him to utilize John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle” made famous by Malick’s The Tree of Life; a piece so embedded in the fabric of such a cinematic monolith surely derailed Gray’s narrative for more than just this viewer.) The Immigrant is very good for what it is, but it’s ultimately a shame Gray couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do more with his promising material.