Directed by James Gray and co-written with Ric Menello, THE IMMIGRANT is a film that is not to be missed and is, quite honestly, the best work of Gray’s career thus far and will be difficult to top. Steeped in the rich immigration history of America in the early 20th Century, THE IMMIGRANT is set in 1921 New York where it revolves around the story of a young Polish Catholic immigrant named Ewa Cybulski, as she tries to navigate the treacherous American waters filled with corrupt officials, hustlers and hookers, social taboos, cultural differences, over-crowded tenements and everyone trying to make a buck to stay alive in this “land of opportunity.” As part of Ewa’s tale, we meet Bruno, a vicious wolf in not so lily white sheep’s clothing, a charming and kind magician named Orlando, plus a cast of characters who make up this melting pot she desperately wants to call “home.”
Incorporating his own genealogy and stories of his grandparents that served as the basis for the film, Gray then melds that foundation with the fruits of extensive research and historical fact (including a 1915 “Hooker’s Handbook”) in order to pay respectful homage to history and to the millions of souls that passed through the halls of Ellis Island looking for hope, opportunity and love. The result is a rich tapestried portrait of 1920's New York through the eye of a young Polish immigrant.
Written specifically for Marion Cotillard, the character of Ewa is the heart of THE IMMIGRANT. Cotillard is at her emotionally enigmatic best, using physical and emotional performance to create a dichotomous Ewa. We see her grow, learn to survive in an emotional dance of survival squaring off against Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno while watching Cotillard and Jeremy Renner’s Orlando is pure magic. Cotillard’s entire performance is one that is both masterful and magical.
Together Renner and Cotillard are sweet, charming and tender. There is a soft tender beauty that unfolds between them that is even more captivating with the nuanced facial expressions, a gentle touch of a hand on a cheek, an innocent come hither upward glance. I could watch the two of them forever. On his own as Orlando, Renner delivers a light, comedic touch that is fun and engaging, almost a breath of fresh air in an oppressive situation.
From start to finish you dislike the character of Bruno. From the very first moments that Joaquin Phoenix appears on screen, he embodies Bruno. There is an unsavoriness that emanates from him that although suiting the character, is unsettling, disturbing. As my grandmother would say, one look at Bruno and you just know he’s a shyster an not to be trusted. Phoenix imbues Bruno with an untrustworthy, almost vile, darkness that is beyond unlikeable. Just watching him with Cotillard makes me cringe as if Bruno is tainting Ewa by his mere presence. Powerful.
Supporting cast is beyond effective, notably Ewa's uncle who drives the harsh puritanical stake of reality deep into the soul.
Story itself is compelling, engrossing even, and although fictionalized, is rooted in the truth of history and countless tales of people like Ewa, Bruno and Orlando. Corruption, greed, prohibition, decay of morals due to a need to survive - the themes are telling and speak volumes of our immigrant history. A stunning slice of life in the history of the melting pot that is America. Gray opens a window into the past that is poignant and personal, giving us more than the printed pages of a history book as a link to the past. Thanks to well crafted, full bodied characters, textured and tapestried historical story, and a depth of emotion within each performance, we feel we know these people, their struggles, their hopes and their hearts as their stories touch ours.
Together with his cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray’s visual palette and tone is pure brilliance. We are immediately transported in time, immersed within, with that immersion being completed thanks to meticulous perfection of costume and production design. Further fueling the historical experience is the accuracy of the time and events portrayed. I have long been an admirer of Khondji and his work here just deepens my respect for him. Going beyond an at times sepia toned palette that evokes a sense of the world being dipped in a teabag of naturalism, inspired by Gray’s research into the era, thanks to the amount of coal and wood that was burned at that time, “the air was incredibly dirty and dense with particulate and you realize when you read that that the sun didn’t really make its appearance”, thus heavier greys and charcoal tinged sequences. The use of light and shadows showcased with mid and close-up shots creates not only an intimacy, but a claustrophobic feel, particularly for Ewa. Camera widens slightly when Ewa and Emil are together metaphorically giving Ewa breathing room. Beautifully designed. The very sight of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty inspires, sending concurrent chills of pride and horror at the hope and sorrow that both bode. Editing and pacing breathes with a natural organic flow.
Notable, according to James Gray, is that “We tried to make up nothing. We tried to base it all on something.” Scenes on Ellis Island are shot within the Beaux Arts Building in the room now called The Registry Hall. The guastavino tiling and architecture is original from 1897. To Gray’s knowledge, no film has been permitted to shoot there until now. The cell in which Ewa is kept on the Island was built as a duplicate of those on display on the Island but which are behind glass for preservation. The theatre where Bruno’s girls perform, “That’s based on a real theatre called The Hay Market. What would happen is the women would come out and they would sort of parade around in their costumes into the audience. It was a pretty small venue with these ridiculous shows where you would fantasize. ” Bruno’s apartment is an actual reproduction of a tenement from the day, built on a sound stage from specifications of rooms on display within the “Tenement Museum” on Orchard Street on New York. The attention to detail within the 8x10 foot room is so exacting, right down to the placement of what were called “tuberculosis windows”. THE IMMIGRANT as a whole is rich with history.
Incorporating Puccini and Wagner as core elements, Chris Spelman’s musical score has an ethereal tone of hope that serves as a wonderful uplifting contrast to the hardship of the times.
There is a haunting mournful beauty to THE IMMIGRANT that breathes life into the ghosts of the past, at times romanticizing, at times brutalizing, but always living.
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Ric Menello
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner