Melodrama and mood piece, character(s) study and historical, James Gray’s The Immigrant presents us with types that turn into richly complex individuals and narrative tropes that transform into peculiar tales possessing both the broad strokes of myth and miniature movements of lived experience.
Set in New York in the early ’20s, the film introduces us to Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) just as she and her sister Magda arrive at Ellis Island after a grueling journey from their Polish homeland. Magda is diagnosed with tuberculosis, Ewa is labelled a “woman of low morals” for unspecified events rumoured to have taken place en route from Europe, and the sisters are unceremoniously separated. Magda cannot escape mandatory quarantine, but Ewa evades deportation thanks to a shady saviour by the name of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Bruno tells Ewa he works with an immigrant assistance organization; he actually manages a basement burlesque show and pimps out his performers, whom he houses in cramped apartments filled with yellowing lace and dappled mirrors. Ewa and Bruno’s relationship is driven by exploitation and childish ardour, desperation and stubborn optimism.
The Immigrant’s third central character, an illusionist dubbed Orlando (Jeremy Renner), doesn’t enter the picture until its midpoint. In a film refreshingly devoid of irony, there’s something fascinating about the fact that the only man in the movie who doesn’t seem full of shit is the one who fools people for a living. Orlando is Bruno’s cousin, both sons of immigrants. They are old rivals, which feeds into what promises to become a love triangle, though this plot twist too is subverted.
Written by Gray and Richard Menello, The Immigrant is heavy on incident but grounded in character and performance. Cotillard has never been better, using languages and cadences to convey varying levels of deceit and desire. Renner, moustachioed and magnetic, echoes the grace and charismatic duplicity of James Cagney. Phoenix, in his fourth collaboration with Gray (following The Yards, Two Lovers and We Own the Night), is tremendously vulnerable without being ingratiating. His Bruno is a scoundrel, but he’s also struggling to make sense of the nagging compassion swelling in him. As the film moves toward its conclusion he somehow emerges as the most transformed and even tragic figure. This is one of the film’s masterstrokes, the way glimmers of moral fortitude are passed from one character to another.