I remember hearing about this movie when it was listed as an upcoming project for Joaquin Phoenix on IMDb. I remember hearing that this movie was at Cannes this last year and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Then for a while, I forgot about The Immigrant. Believe me when I say, once you have seen this film, you won’t soon be forgetting it.
The Immigrant follows a young polish woman named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) when she arrives on Ellis Island with her sickly sister, Magda, in the 1920’s. After Magda is put into quarantine because of her sickness and Ewa is nearly deported, an American named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to her “rescue.” Bruno shows her kindness and gives her a temporary place to stay and a low paying job as seamstress, but as Ewa becomes restless to try and make more money to get her sister off the island and get her proper medical care, she becomes involved in Bruno’s line of work. Bruno runs a theater-house/ brothel made up of foreign women who entertain the men of New York City. Ewa’s life descends into despair as she begins to work under Bruno and hates herself for it. But hope comes in the form of the charming, Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), and Ewa continues to question if she should stay under the wing of Bruno just for the reason of making ends meet.
I am not going to say that the general plot (the hardship of immigrants faced in to America in the 20’s) has not been done many times before, but the direction of the plot and film’s execution set it apart from other films. The film presents the characters with many tough moral dilemmas. The plot stays interesting, and the film explores the dark side of the American Dream.
I hate to throw around the word “great,” but The Immigrant truly holds all of the merits of a great film. Everything from acting to direction to writing to production design is excellent.
As noted, the sets for this movie are fantastic. In a film industry full of fake looking CGI historical landscapes (cough cough Les Miserables), The Immigrant displays a refreshing, practically-made set of the streets of 1920’s New York.
Moving on to performances, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful and subtly complex performance. Phoenix shifts from intimidating and wicked to troubled and caring to self destructive and drunken as Bruno Weiss. To be honest behind his role as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, this may be Phoenix’s second best performance to date. To put that into perspective, I have yet to see The Master (what many consider to be Phoenix’s best role) but have seen Her (where Phoenix does deliver another great performance, his third best performance in my humble opinion). Although Bruno Weiss is essentially a pimp and does what he has to do to keep his suitors happy and business running, he is not always seen as the bad guy. The audience can obviously tell that deep down Bruno does care about Ewa and many of the other prostitutes. He is a man trying his best to keep his business going. But then again, said job is exploiting women bodies for money. It should also be added that Bruno does have quite a mean-streak. All of this is what makes is part of what makes Bruno a great character. Another quality of Bruno that makes him a great character is how human and realistic he is. The audience begins to see faults in Bruno that Bruno himself does not even notice, and whether or not we as humans like to realize it or not, all of us have faults. Bruno is a reminder of that. Often times Bruno’s anger overcomes him, and he does crazy things especially regarding Ewa. However, Bruno still does have his own morals that keep him in line. Although the picture that director/writer James Gray has painted of Bruno is not always pretty to look at, one can understand why he does the things he does. Another excellent thing that Phoenix achieves in his performance is that you alternately hate and like his character through some excellent character development. Joaquin Phoenix is a character actor that Hollywood needs to keep within hand’s reach.
Poor Jeremy Renner. Jeremy Renner was nominated for two Oscars in the span of two years and then went on to star in many big movies with big roles. So why am I saying “Poor Jeremy Renner”? Because, besides The Town and The Hurt Locker, he is always given the short end of the stick. He delivered a good performance despite being in a badly made movie in The Bourne Legacy, and he made the best of a role in which he was “possessed” for almost the whole film in The Avengers. He also had what I consider the most underrated performance of 2013 in American Hustle. Jeremy Renner is a great actor, and he delivers in almost every film he is in. Renner delivers a charismatic yet emotionally expressive turn in the film as Emil (Orlando the Magician’s real name). The real impressiveness of Renner’s role is that he does not even have very much screen time in the film, but when he inhabits the screen, he makes you care about the character. That is the sign of a good actor. He also represents hope for Ewa which makes the audience charmed by his magic much like she is.
Saving the best for last, Marion Cotillard is a knockout as Polish immigrant, Ewa. The moral compromises that Ewa has to make and the dark side of the “American Dream” that she faces requires a great actress to portray those emotions. That actress is Cotillard. She does not have to be flashy to grab the attention of the audience. Quite the opposite actually. Cotillard is spellbinding by simply existing.
Her role as the fish-out-of-water refugee of World War I Poland thrown into a boiling pot is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only does Cotillard deliver her Polish and English dialogue with emotion, but her performance is made unique by something else. In one scene, Orlando the Magician stops and stares at Ewa and says, “God… You’re beautiful.” He is right. She holds a wholesome beauty that seldom exists in mainstream film. James Gray met Cotillard while writing Blood Ties and wrote The Immigrant just for her for almost exactly that reason. Cotillard’s reactions to other characters and events, the expressiveness in her eyes, and her facial expression tell as much of a story as her words do. After seeing her character in agony for much of the film, when Ewa experiences moments of happiness, Cotillard captures them beautifully. Also much like Bruno, you care about Ewa so you don’t always like what Ewa is doing, but you do understand why she is doing it. People tend to forget that Cotillard won the Oscar for playing French singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose a few years ago. Although it may be too early to tell, I honestly think that Cotillard could earn another Best Actress award at next year’s Oscars, and she would absolutely deserve it.
I only have one real criticism and one petty criticism about this film. My only real criticism is that the film’s pacing is a little uneven. The film takes its time setting up situations, characters, and just letting a nice shot flow by, but it tends to take it slower than faster, slower than faster, etc. Although not a huge problem, this makes certain scenes slightly jarring. As an example, I found one of the first scenes involving Ewa’s new “profession” to be very uncomfortable. Although this scene is meant to be uncomfortable and the film has a very serious nature, it comes a little bit too quickly in regards to what had happened before this scene. My petty criticism is that in this movie is that one 1920’s can-can song in every dancing scene in a movie about the 20’s. I felt as though the songs were picked out just so the audience would know it and that felt a bit too commercial to me. I would have preferred if a few of the songs were more unknown, seeing as a lot of music from the 1920’s is are.
Bottom Line: With great performances from all three main leads (especially Cotillard), good direction, writing, and an interesting plot, The Immigrant is definitely worth watching.
Rating: 8.5 out 10 stars
The Immigrant will be limitedly released in New York and Los Angeles on May 16th and will likely be released throughout the United States in following weeks.