Right from its evocative opening shot, “The Immigrant” takes us into the era when many poor, desperate people struggled hard in a world which was not as generous to them as they hoped. They might have some bright hopes about their new life in America as greeted by the Statue of Liberty and the landscape of New York, but they soon faced harsh reality when they got off from their ships in Ellis Island, and that was just the beginning of their long, hard journey toward settlement in their new country.
When Ewa Cybulska (Mario Cotillard) arrives in New York with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) and other immigrants, this young Polish woman finds herself in a very difficult situation beyond her control. Her sister is taken away from her by customs officers because she is diagnosed to have tuberculosis and has to be quarantined for several months, and then she is told that the address given to her by her aunt living in New York is non-existent.
While she becomes desperate and helpless as being put into detention which may lead to deportation in the worst case, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a small-time impresario who already set his eyes on Ewa as looking around the customs for any good-looking women to be exploited by him, approaches to her with an offer she cannot refuse. For getting her sister back, she need money for bribing authorities, and he can give her a chance to earn her money if she agrees to work under his supervision.
Bruno has already been handling a number of women, and we see these women going through another seedy night at a night club just for entertaining its drunken, lecherous customers. Ewa is forced to appear on the stage with others at one point, and then she is tumbled into a more degrading circumstance when Bruno brokers a small private meeting between her and a young guy whose father reminds me of that amusing line from “Paint Your Wagon” (1969): “Grace, I give you the boy. Give me back the man.”
As a faithful Catholic woman, Ewa feels guilty about her moral degradation, but this seemingly fragile woman is determined to survive and see her sister again, and she gradually reveals her indomitable spirit inside her. She needs Bruno for getting what she wants, so she lets herself used by him, but she maintains her own dignity in spite of what she has to endure for her survival. The movie usually sticks to her viewpoint, and it mostly steps back from the unsavory details in the story while suggesting enough about her torments and humiliations.
While maintaining its restrained attitude like that, the movie works as a splendid window to a bygone era. The cinematographer Darius Khondji did a fabulous job of setting the rich atmosphere of lights and shadows on the screen which will remind you of those old photographs from the early 20th Century, and the production design by Happy Massee and the costume design by Patricia Norris deserve praises for their painstaking details. The somber score by Christopher Spelman always stands back from the foreground, but it is also crucial in setting the tone of the movie while never interrupting its slow but steady narrative flow.
And Marion Cotillard, a talented French actress who has moved forward with more stellar performances since her well-deserved Oscar win for “La Vie en Rose” (2007), gives another good performance to watch here in this film. Even though she did not have much time to prepare herself for a considerable amount of Polish dialogues in the film, she masterfully handles both English and Polish dialogues with a natural accent to be admired (According to my Polish acquaintance Michał Oleszczyk, she really did a good job as far as he could hear), and she effortlessly moves around the wide range of emotions through her expressive face which is reminiscent of many graceful melodrama heroines of classic silent films around the 1910-20s.
In opposite to Cotillard, Joaquin Pheonix, who previously collaborated with the director/co-screenplay writer James Gray in three films, gives an intense portrayal of a conflicted man who becomes not only more despicable but also more pitiful to us. Not so surprisingly, Bruno has certain feelings toward Ewa, and that torments him more as he is reminded again and again that he will never win her heart – even when she chooses to stick to him for a practical reason. His wild temper is always a source of troubles for both of them, and we can clearly see the sign of an upcoming trouble when Emil (Jeremy Renner, who is also good in his rather functional role), Bruno’s cousin who works as Orlando the Magician, appears. Emil comes to care a lot about Ewa, and Bruno naturally becomes jealous of what is going on between Eva and Emil although Ewa is not willing to go along with Emil because of her apparent reason.
What eventually happens later in the story feels contrived to say the least, but the movie holds itself well even at that point, and then it arrives at the haunting finale appropriate for its somber storytelling. I heard that the movie was inspired by the recollections from James Gray’s grandparents who came to America during the 1920s, and Gray says the movie is “my most personal and autobiographical film to date”. I really do not know how much autobiographical his film actually is, but this is a solid period drama not only imbued with care and details and but also supported by excellent lead performances, and that already makes it into something worthwhile to watch.