Reviewed for the Miami International Film Festival.
It’s unsurprising that a film titled The Immigrant would open with a shot of the Statue of Liberty off in the distance, only to pull back and reveal someone looking; a clear sense of hope implied by the title that came just before. That hope, the undying spirit of a person even in the midst of nothing but tragedy, is exactly what James Gray’s film is all about.
The Prohibition Era isn’t exactly the safest time for an immigrant, much less a woman who has arrived to America on her own, accused of being of “low morals” for being sexually assaulted on the boat, while her sister was taken away to the Ellis Island infirmary for tuberculosis. If it sounds bleak, it’s because Gray and former collaborator Ric Menello’s (Two Lovers) narrative places Ewa Cybulski (Cotillard) into situations that no one person should have to face just to survive. But that’s part of the point that the writers are making. It’s the stark reality of how overwhelmingly harsh the conditions were in the twenties for those trying to reach the idea of the American Dream.
Cold and relentless is how The Immigrant‘s narrative plays out, and yet every shot of the film emits a warmth from its color palette and cinematography that’s essential to its quality. Daris Khondji’s projects certainly vary, often helping a director regain the look of former films — Wong Kar-Wai with My Blueberry Nights, Michael Haneke with Funny Games, and arguably even Woody Allen with a couple — but this, arguably his best work since the ’90s, is a work that constantly emits the spirit of an early American period; an almost sepia vibe mixed in with a lot of chiaroscuro lighting reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ work for The Godfather. To match that American classic feel, its costuming and set design are top notch, constantly making one feel as though they’ve discovered a work genuinely from the 1900s in New York.
As mentioned, one of the most notable qualities of the film is its female protagonist, as well as the men who try to take advantage of her, which is how Joaquin Phoenix’s pimp and Jeremy Renner’s magician factor into her life. While both deliver just the right amount of sleaze to fit the corrupt characters they’ve been given, Phoenix offers a semblance of sweetness to his volatile character while Renner delivers nothing but charisma and charm. In all honesty, it’s the first time I’ve actually been impressed by the actor. For all the romance they seem to have for this unfamiliar woman, the two place her in the most compromising positions possible, and Menello’s story offers her little solace in the things she must do to survive. She has been placed with the label of a woman with “low morals,” and as such, is seen by the world as even more tainted than the men who use and abuse her.
There’s a certain weakness that comes with being in the compromising position of “female foreigner” in a new land, and yet, she uses the same features that make her weak in the eyes of men for power. She pricks her thumb to use the blood for lipstick, slaps her face a little, knowing full well that her beauty is something that can be used to go on living. But the most compelling feature of her character is that Ewa is never solely out for herself. Everything she does, she does for her sick sister. Even in prayer, heart bared to a priest during an incredibly vulnerable moment — in which Gray and Cotillard deliver one of the most impacting scenes in the work — her sole request is the protection of others. To write such a self-less character into a period like this is to offer both heartache and inspiration; an essential feature to why The Immigrant works as an exploration of character. The atrocities she experiences all feel so real, almost forced to corrupt even though they are often left in the shadows, smartly revealed through word of mouth rather than brutal imagery. All this in the name of becoming an American citizen.
James Gray has crafted a tale that echoes the spirit of every woman who longed to make a name for herself in a place that wanted nothing to do with her. If nothing else, he’s made a powerful period piece that offers a better glimpse into the subject of life after transatlantic immigration than most can dream of achieving;The Immigrant truly solidifying him as one of the most talented presences in modern American cinema.
The Immigrant is currently available on Netflix Instant (as of 9/13/14).
Directed by James Gray; written by James Gray & Ric Menello; starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner; 120 minutes.