On Ellis Island in the 1920s, Ewa and Magda are Polish sisters waiting in a line to enter the United State and take their chance at the American dream. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is excited, if nervous, the latter due to Magda’s (Angela Sarafyan) cough. Literally a few yards away from a perceived better life, the world comes crashing down around these sisters. Magda is taken away, grabbed by concerned officials who fret that she is riddled with disease. Ewa shouts for Magda and is told that her beloved sibling will be held in containment for six months. Then things get worse.
Ewa is forbidden from entering the country, accused of being a woman of “low morals” after an incident on the boat-ride over from Europe. She will be deported back to Poland, or so it appears until a seemingly wealthy man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) sees Ewa lined up with other women baring the same fate. Bruno sees that Ewa speaks fluent English imagines a chance to help the two of them, with only a small bribe being necessary.
This is how the table is set for James Gray’s The Immigrant, a picture that lingers in the cruelties life can bring when looking out for the whole of a community means crushing and ridding itself of those in need. Collaborating once more with screenwriter Ric Menello after 2008’s Two Lovers, Gray gives Ewa a difficult road to interact with, yet shades in details of her personality and mindset as to present her as more than a victim of circumstance.
Once with Bruno, Ewa learns that her savior’s business is one of showgirls and prostitution. He provides them shelter and money, they provide their bodies, and for most everyone that’s a fine relationship. Ewa reluctantly opts to partake, even as she’s no wilting daisy herself, as we see her early on in the picture stealing from her new coworkers. Yes, Ewa is doing this deed to eventually help her sick sister, but Gray and Cotillard present the character as slyly devious. Ewa doesn’t long to hurt others, however she definitely puts herself and Magda before all else.
This intention gets more difficult with the inclusion of Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician who fancies Ewa. Emil appears to be a smoother, calmer presence than the occasionally drunken and angry Bruno. Emil is his own mess too, with bad blood that has lingered between he and his cousin. The love triangle that Gray plots out is complicated, with no feeling being one of shear affection. Guilt and selfishness pervade each direction of the desire.
Gray’s presentation of the period is superb, evoking the same sense of changing climates and ambition that Coppola and Leone captured in their perspective ventures into the time. With cinematography by the great Darius Khondji (Amour), Gray’s 1920s is a grainy, golden hue, with the blackest of nights only seeable due to oil-lamps or fires in the street. One chase scene in the final act through sewer tunnels is especially stunning, as we witness arms flail and fists slamming onto a person amidst feint flashlights swinging and breaking the darkness.
The Immigrant isn’t saying anything new about the snap judgments humanity makes on one another or the ways which we use those gut-reactions to justify our actions. It’s saying them astutely though, with piercing, guttural bluntness.
The Immigrant is now playing in limited release in Seattle.