To see lead acting at its finest, one needs to look no further than Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone." As Stephanie, she shows grace, beauty and resolve in the aftermath of a tragic accident that forever leaves her life altered. She even took home the Best Actress Oscar in 2008("La Vie en Rose"), rising above the likes of Julie Christie, Laura Linney and Cate Blanchett. Even her supporting roles have been smart and affecting, resonating in such films as "Inception", "Contagion" and "Nine."
James Gray's "The Immigrant" marks Cotillard's first official lead role in an English language film(although she's been top bill on many films for awhile). Sadly, something was lost in the translation from her native tongue. The role of Ewa Cybulski is actually quite beneath the talented actress, and this becomes obvious from very early on in the film.
Polish immigrant Ewa arrives at New York's Ellis Island in the 1920's. She's with her sister, who is visibly ill and coughing. They are both pulled from the 'customs' line(would it have been considered customs back then?), and Ewa is told that if her sister doesn't improve she'll be deported in six months. Ewa will be deported right away, until Bruno(Joaquin Phoenix) comes to her rescue.
For a good portion of the film, Ewa appears weak and rather naive. She is far too trusting in Bruno, who claims he is in the theatre business, but his particular brand of live show is far seedier than he initially lets on. Ewa's dedication to her sister is understandable, and admirable, but it is difficult for the viewer to maintain that tunnel vision when the sister isn't a part of ninety percent of the film. There isn't even an obligatory hospital visit somewhere in the middle.
Ewa is willing to be victimized in order to earn money to save her sister(apparently tuberculosis could be cured with a large cash reward back then), and this actually makes her character appear weaker, not stronger. One has to ponder why she never does decide to 'take her show on the road' and leave Bruno behind and try and make her own way. When Bruno's cousin the magician(Jeremy Renner) shows up, the film almost seems to adopt a bizarre love triangle for a few scenes. The two get into a tussle at the theatre, and the whole thing seems a little too lighthearted for a drama so heavy in every other moment.
"The Immigrant" opened the 49th Chicago International Film Festival last night, with the director in attendance. James Gray spoke with a down-to-earth sense of humor, and it was clear he knew how to command the attention of his audience. He has proven he can do the same with his motion pictures as well, but "The Immigrant" isn't one of those examples. Gray stated that he was influenced by silent films in his latest work, and that certainly shines through in the costumes, and especially the theatre sequences. The stage is alive with vibrance and color, but the characters seem to be in a different movie. Phoenix tries to pull out all the stops in the last ten minutes, but his heart-wrenching monologue isn't enough to pull the audience back into the picture.
While The Weinstein Company is attached to the film, it is notable that "The Immigrant" still doesn't have a release date. Or an official website(there is a French-language one). Or any mention of the film on The Weinstein Company's website. It is slated to screen at a few more festivals over the course of the next several months, but that seems to be the only news. Rumblings on IMDB state that the film might be headed for a direct-to-video release. That would seem like a slightly harsh fate, but it just may be the best scenario for the three leads. Just pretend it didn't happen, and move on to the next thing.