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Thursday, October 10, 2013


Joaquin Phoenix, left, and Marion Cotillard, right, in James Gray's THE IMMIGRANT
Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
2013, 120 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, and some language

Review by Joshua Handler

There are films that come along every once in a while that completely immerse me in their period and story.  These films prove to be the most memorable filmgoing experiences, as they are pure cinema.  The Immigrant is one such film.  It is so detailed, complex, well-acted, and unique that it is impossible not to be drawn in for the two hours that it runs.  With this film, James Gray crafted something that is personal and classical in style - something very refreshing in today's age of generic blockbusters.  Gray's film feels like an epic immigrant story that would have been made 50 or 60 years ago.

The Immigrant was shot by master cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour, Midnight in Paris).  The film presents a romanticized, soft-focus version of 1921 New York City in the wide shots, but presents a very different New York when focusing on an individual dramatic scene.  This New York is the one in which people were cramped into small apartments - if they could afford one.  This New York had people begging for a better life.  This New York forced young immigrants to sell themselves in hopes of a better life.

The film follows the story of Ewa, a young Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda.  Upon arrival, Magda is taken to the infirmary and Ewa faces deportation, until a man, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) bribes an official at Ellis Island to let Ewa go.  Bruno promises Ewa a place to stay and eventually forces her into prostitution - a way for her to pay Bruno to bribe an official to let Magda go.

The Immigrant is reminiscent of Fellini's masterpiece La Strada in the way it tells the story of a brute who falls for the woman he exploits.  James Gray doesn't allow Bruno to be a stereotypical villain.  He is a man with a beating heart.  Gray spoke after the film in a Q&A and discussed how many pimps and prostitutes had co-dependent relationships in the 1920s, just as Ewa and Bruno do.  It is this tragic reality that formed the American Dream for so many people.  

In his exploration of the American Dream, Gray makes it personal.  Epics about immigration tend to focus on theme, not character.  The Immigrant focuses on those who followed that dream and tried to reach it.  Ewa is a sympathetic character, one that is well-developed, much thanks to Marion Cotillard's gentle performance.  Ewa's story is the story of so many people's great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, making this film instantly relatable and emotional.

Marion Cotillard gives another agonized performance as Ewa, taking advantage of the smaller moments to let herself shine.  Because Ewa is a quiet woman, Cotillard must internalize most of Ewa's emotions and show them through her face.  This performance is the key to making the movie work because without audience sympathy for Ewa, the protagonist, this movie wouldn't work.  Cotillard's pathetic, emaciated appearance and the naïve personality she gives Ewa immediately won me over and had me pulling for her throughout.  

Joaquin Phoenix gives an multi-dimensional performance as Bruno.  Below the immoral exterior is a heart and a man who simply wants to love.  He never tries to make us root for Bruno, but we still do even as we hate him since we connect to him on a human level.  Jeremy Renner gives a calm performance as Orlando, a magician Ewa meets at Ellis Island.  He had one of the most poignant scenes in the film.  Ewa is taken back to Ellis Island early in the film and as nighttime entertainment, Orlando opens for opera singer Enrico Caruso.  On his way out, Ewa catches his eye.  He walks over to her, remarks on her beauty, and gives her the white rose that he's wearing.  This is such a small scene, but it is significant to Ewa, as it is the first time since the movie began that someone is nice to her.  It is a moment of relief for the audience since the rest of the movie is so downbeat (yet not depressing).  Renner's gentle performance makes this scene powerful.

Chris Spelman's classical-style score makes the film feel epic and grand, perfectly complementing Khondji's gorgeous sepia-toned cinematography.

Overall, The Immigrant is a magnificent film that will connect to many audiences.  This is a film made with love by a passionate director who wanted to tell the story of his ancestors.  It is rare to see cinema this well-intentioned and even rarer to see a film that is obviously so close to its director's heart.  The Immigrant is an immersive, honest, sometimes rough, but always rewarding journey that impressed me and moved me from the moment it started until the moment it finished with its stunning final shot.


1 comment:

  1. Ewa will go down as a classic character of the movies.