The Immigrant looks the part of a period melodrama; the sets and costumes are spot-on, and Darius Khondji’s cinematography boasts many beautiful compositions. But when it comes to the drama, it never catches fire, in large part due to the weak script by director James Gray and the late Ric Menello. The film does have compensations, namely Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, but on the whole, I don’t see what its defenders–and it’s got plenty of them–are raving about.
In 1921, Polish immigrants Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda Cybulski (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island, and their troubles begin immediately as the tubercular Magda is sent into quarantine and Ewa is threatened with deportation because the aunt and uncle she was expecting to live with cannot be found. She is “rescued” from a holding line by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who claims to represent an aid agency and takes Ewa into his home. It soon becomes apparent that Bruno is not only a burlesque promoter (paying off the police so his lewd shows, with alcohol served, may continue), but also a pimp, and Ewa finds herself compelled to sell her body.
She leaves Bruno and finds her aunt and uncle, who take her in, but the following morning immigration agents arrest her for her alleged “low morals”, stemming from an incident on the ship from Poland (which is never fully explained). She’s taken to Ellis, and while in detention sees a magic show performed by Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who immediately takes a liking to her. Bruno finds Ewa and buys her way out of detention, but she demands–and receives–an increase in her share of her takings. Later, shortly before a show, she sees Orlando performing in the burlesque and learns that he and Bruno have a long and troubled past–they are cousins, and fell out over a girl Bruno had taken under his influence, but who fell in love with Orlando.
After a brutal confrontation between the two men over Ewa leaves Bruno imprisoned, Orlando decides to leave New York on a tour, and asks Ewa to go with him, but she refuses, and instead, after going to church and confessing, sets herself to forgiving Bruno for his wrongdoing. Bruno, meanwhile, has been thrown out of the club where he staged his burlesques, and takes the girls to Central Park, where he pimps them as the daughters of New York’s social elites. Orlando returns, informing Ewa that he’s come into some money after winning a card game, and that he can buy Magda’s way out of quarantine.
Bruno arrives, and after Orlando tries to convince Bruno to let Ewa go at gunpoint (though he has removed the bullets), Bruno stabs Orlando fatally. Though he is clearly horrified by what he has done, he tries to cover it up–but Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk), one of Bruno’s girls who has feuded with Ewa, tries to pin the crime on her, and Ewa and Bruno are forced to flee from the police, who ultimately catch Bruno and beat him severely, taking the money he had intended for Magda’s release. Ewa goes to her aunt (who is sympathetic to her plight) and gets the money, and she and Bruno go to Ellis, where Bruno reveals the extent of his wickedness–he had stacked the deck against Ewa at Ellis, forcing her to rely on his “charity”, but she remains forgiving, and as she and Magda are re-united and leave for the West, Bruno leaves to give himself up to the police.
The Immigrant is one of those films which I dread analyzing, because it doesn’t do anything spectacularly wrong–it falls short in many small ways, ways that add up into a decidedly underwhelming package, but which are tedious to enumerate. So to keep things brief, let’s start with this: the film seems to want to be a full-0n melodrama, a Sirkian tale of a woman’s tribulations at the hands of an unscrupulous man, and a few scenes go towards reinforcing that idea. But so much of the film is determinedly low-key, muted, and somber, that it bcomes more tedious that moving. On one hand, you’ve got a melodramatic symbol like the white rose which Orlando gives Ewa on their first encounter. When she returns to Bruno and to prostitution, we cut to the flower, now browned and wilted, as Ewa bids farewell to another client, and we see her, holding a blanket over her body, her hair falling about her face, the image dappled with shadows cast by the window-shade. It’s an unabashedly melodramatic moment:
But for every moment like that, the are too many that don’t amount to anything. I had high hopes for the burlesque elements of the story, hoping that would give us some well-staged/shot routines, and maybe some good backstage material. But as it is, it has virtually nothing to do with the film; it’s Ewa’s prostitution that advances the story, not her fleeting appearances onstage. Orlando’s first magic routine is well-done, but beyond that, he might as well have been a plumber for all it has to do with the story.
Ewa herself is an underwhelming protagonist: she has an arc (from the hopeful, desperate immigrant at the start, to the embittered “fallen woman”, to forgiving and redeeemed at the end), but the beats don’t add up to anything. I never got the sense of a real person underneath it all. Cotillard’s performance doesn’t help, because she seems stymied by the lack of depth. I haven’t seen a lot of Cotillard’s work, but what I have seen suggests her best performances allow her to show the character’s darker side–take, for example, Mal in Inception, who is both the sinister, destructive force of Cobb’s psyche and the troubled, haunted figure in his flashbacks. And she’s great there. And Ewa, given the emotional journey she goes on, should have offered Cotillard a role to really sink her teeth into. But instead, we get only flashes of what could have been, and the character and performance are both rather dull.
As noted, it’s Phoenix that really redeems the film. Bruno is a truly awful person–not a cartoon villain, but a corrupt, manipulative, violent SOB, and he knows it. His final scene, where he expresses incredulity at Ewa’s willingness to forgive him, shows the depths of his awareness. Bruno may have some concern for the girls he exploits, but his greed always comes first (however much he regrets it)–until the end, when he undertakes a final redemptive act. That Phoenix nails the role is no surprise. He’s on a roll, coming off two award-worthy performances in The Master and Her, plus he’s collaborated with Gray before (his work in Two Lovers being particularly acclaimed), and he continues that streak here, playing every part of Bruno–the burlesque emcee, the pimp, the vicious bully, the “protector”, the self-loather–perfectly. He’s never less than believable at any point, and he almost single-handedly makes the film worth watching.
The rest of the cast barely merits mention. There’s not a whole lot to Orlando, and although Renner is properly charming and warm, the role does not really allow for a memorable performance. Yelena Solovey, as Rosie, the proprietor of the burlesque venue and a sort of mother figure to the girls (as well as Bruno and Orlando), gives a little life to her role, but that’s about it.
Gray creates some fine scenes, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to the tech department, who do superlative work. Happy Massee’s production design brings the cramped apartments, shabby clubs, and dirty streets of 20s New York to life, Patricia Norris’ costumes are nothing short of impeccable, and Darius Khondji’s cinematography includes some of the best composed shots since A Touch of Sin. Visually, it’s often magnificent. It doesn’t compensate fully for the dramatic weakness of the film, but it gives the film virtues altogether rare these days. Christopher Spelman’s score, though, is utterly forgettable, which is never good when melodrama is concerned.
The Immigrant never lives up to its own potential, and I’m quite baffled as to why. At times, it seems like Gray made the film because the era and the milieu fascinated him, but he and Menello never crafted a story that lived up to it. That the film changed its title several times–Nightingale and Low Life were both the title at various points–suggests a possible uncertainty as to what the film is really about, or what it’s trying to say. It was finally given a shockingly generic name, which is oddly fitting, given how shallow its themes are. I wanted to love it, and it has a strong chance of getting nominations from me for the sets, costumes, and Phoenix, but I must add it to the growing list of disappointments that is the first half of 2014.