I’ve seen two James Gray films before The Immigrant: The Yards and Two Lovers, both of which I enjoyed. But I wasn’t prepared to be knocked out as I was by his latest, set in New York in the 1920s, and detailing the experiences of a woman fresh off the boat from Poland.
The Immigrant has a number of strengths, but for me it will always come back to Marion Cotillard’s face. It is a face made for motion pictures, and Gray knows that and makes hay with it. His photographer, Darius Khondji, lights her as if lit from within, as she is something of a saint. She sins, but for a greater good.
Cotillard plays Ewa. She and her sister have made it to Ellis Island, but the sister has TB and is put in quarantine. Cotillard is set to be deported because of questionable morals on the boat over, but she is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who is in the entertainment business. Actually, he is a pimp, but Cotillard doesn’t know that.
Phoenix, in one of his best performances (by that I mean he is not chewing the scenery) cajoles her with a combination of sweet talk and menace, like many abusers, and she is soon in the life, raising money to get her sister off of Ellis Island. Along the way she meets Phoenix’s cousin, a magician (Jeremy Renner), and the two enter a rivalry over her.
This is a fantastic film, but I must say the first half is better than the second. I was so taken by the recreation of 1921 New York, including what must have been on-location filming at Ellis Island (the opening shot of the Statue of Liberty through mist is a beaut) that the resulting tangled plot lines seemed a bit of a let-down. There are few too many coincidences–Phoenix showing up at church just in time to overhear Cotillard’s confession is a big one. Still, the film is so sumptuous to watch. Khondji’s work is nonpareil–there’s a shot near the end of policemen beating someone in a tunnel, the only light there jostled flashlights–it’s breathtaking.
Cotillard is perfect, and again, Phoenix, who can be so bloody annoying, is also perfect here as a man who is happy to exploit women but doesn’t know what to do when he becomes enamored of one.
This film deserves to be remembered around award season, though I doubt it will be.
My grade for The Immigrant: A-.