Hidden somewhere in James Gray’s The Immigrant is a great film about a waif beaten down by the hardships of the world and who must find it within herself to keep going. What surrounds these wonderful elements, however, is a stilted period drama about two unworthy men fighting over a woman who desires no such emotional dueling.
Make no mistake, Marion Cotillard is brilliant as the titular Polish immigrant who comes to America with her sister to find a better life and escape the Great War. There is a fragility to Cotillard that the Paris-born actress – here playing a Polish émigré without missing a beat – uses as a strength. A deep well of pain resides within the character, Ewa, and from that well she draws the power to devote herself to her cause.
She and her sister arrive at Ellis Island, and it is clear from the beginning her sister is not well. Sure enough, she is quarantined and told she will be deported in six months if her condition does not improve. Ewa is turned away as a “woman of low morals” and informed she will be sent back to Poland immediately. She will not leave her sister, though, and determines to do anything she can to help her sister get off the island. In walks Bruno Weiss, a usually reliable Joaquin Phoenix, to help her. Thus begin Ewa’s problems – and the film’s.
There is much to like about the story of a woman of faith disturbed by the things she must do to survive and even more disturbed that the ability to do such things exists within her. Cotillard is naturalistic and brooding, and there is not a hint of vanity or affectation in her performance. But Gray, with Ric Menello, has written a film that cannot match her tone.
Cotillard is taking part in a neo-realist tragedy in the vein of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, a film with similar themes and even a few shared scenes. The rest of the cast, including Phoenix and a game, if overmatched, Jeremy Renner, seems to be in a melodramatic period piece with Vaudevillian pimps (Phoenix) and roguish magicians (Renner).
Phoenix has several good moments toward the end, and Renner’s Orlando the Magician is charming in an Errol Flynn sort of way. But both are underserved by a lack of backstory, either pertaining to them as individuals or to their shared history, which has created some vague tension that is never satisfactorily explained. The men fight over Ewa because that is what men do in this type of high drama, but there is little motivating them aside from the shared love of a woman who could do as well without either of their attentions.
Gray reportedly told his wife, upon a viewing of the Puccini opera “Il Trittico,” filmmakers do not make movies about women anymore such as the classics with Barbara Stanwyck and Greer Garson. She told him to make one, and he embarked upon The Immigrant. After seeing the film, one wishes he had hewn more closely to that ideal.
See it? No.