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The Immigrant

From the director of Two Lovers

Poster art for The ImmigrantIn American popular culture, and in the private lore of millions of American families, the immigrant experience of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is often presented as a chronicle of struggle and triumph, a parable of dreams come true. In The Immigrant, James Gray tries to push through this rosy nostalgia and recapture some of the terror and strangeness of the journey from the Old World to the New. The first shot is of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in harbor mist, and the film unfolds in the gap between the promise that lady embodies and the harsh realities a newcomer encounters once she gets off the boat.

The newcomer is Ewa Cybulska, a Polish Catholic who has crossed the ocean in 1921 with her sister, in flight from war and deprivation. She is played by Marion Cotillard (proving herself once again to be one of the subtlest and bravest screen actresses of the moment) with a luminous intensity – at once dignified and utterly vulnerable. And while The Immigrant has dialogue (in several languages) and was shot in colour (by the great cinematographer Darius Khondji with a soft-focus, gorgeously grainy palette), it feels almost like a lost artifact of the era it depicts.

At Ellis Island, Ewa and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), are separated by the authorities. Magda is quarantined, and Ewa, classified as a person of questionable morals and ‘liable to become a public charge,’ is prepared for deportation. She is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a sharply dressed and well-connected representative of the Travelers Aid Society, who’s also a producer of burlesque shows and a pimp.

It does not take long for Ewa, who is desperate rather than naïve, to figure out that her saviour is also a predator. But Mr. Phoenix, who appeared in three of Mr. Gray’s previous films (The Yards, We Own The Night, and Two Lovers), is a notably complicated actor, and Bruno is by no means a simple villain. There are unmistakable gothic elements in Ewa’s tale, which is to some extent a lurid fable of wronged innocence, irrational cruelty and wild coincidence set in a landscape of betrayal, brutality and corruption. But Mr. Gray’s gentle, probing camera works its way under the skin and into the souls of the characters, who turn out to be as changeable and unpredictable as their circumstances.

Ewa suffers – she is forced into prostitution and rejected by relatives she thought would care for her – but she also schemes and steals. She is treated with not entirely undeserved suspicion by some of her new companions, notably Belva (the wonderful Dagmara Dominczyk), another of Bruno’s charges.

Ewa also strikes up a relationship with Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a stage magician who happens to be Bruno’s cousin. He is, at least in Ewa’s eyes, Bruno’s antithesis, free-spirited and kindhearted, but he functions more as a structural convenience than a fully human presence.  Still, Orlando is part of a vivid tableau of early-20th-century urban popular culture, a milieu that provides The Immigrant with its setting and its inspiration. The tenor Enrico Caruso performs for the Ellis Island detainees before Orlando’s magic act, and the Bandit’s Roost, the Lower East Side nightclub where Bruno’s ‘doves’ shed their clothes, is a hive of vaudevillian variety, home to strippers, comedians and musicians. It is hard to disentangle art from sleaze, much as, with Bruno, you can’t quite separate the lost boy from the scoundrel.

All of which is part of the point Mr. Gray is making about America and equally about the art form to which he is so passionately attached. Crude manipulation sits side by side with exquisite subtlety; tawdriness is all mixed up with beauty, meanness with tenderness. Like Mr. Gray’s other movies, The Immigrant is messy and glorious, a potboiler with the soul of a tragedy, a Dreiserian opera.

It tells the story of a woman who is denied both the consolations of tribe and her own autonomy, and thus presents a kind of photographic negative of the American dream. It is not what your great-grandmother told her children, even though it may have been a story she knew very well.

– A.O. Scott, The New York Times

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