Written by James Gray and Ric Menello
Directed by James Gray
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner
Ewa Cybulska: I hate you and I hate myself.
In cinema’s earlier days, melodrama was not considered to be negative. Today, many films are looked down upon for their more melodramatic indulgences. It seems that currently, filmmakers can push the boundaries of drama, as long as the film never crosses the thin line between dramatic and melodramatic. Recent films, like LABOR DAY and THE NORMAL HEART could’ve been great films, had they not so violently crossed that line. James Gray’s latest film, THE IMMIGRANT gets so very close to that line, but doesn’t cross it, resulting in a beautiful film, with tones of classical melodramas, but with the depth of a modern masterpiece.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulska, who in 1921, sails with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), from Poland to New York City in search of a better life. When the two arrive on Ellis Island, Ewa learns that her sister had tuberculosis and must be quarantined. Ewa herself faces deportation, but Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming brute with connections, helps smuggle her onto a ship heading for Manhattan. Bruno offers Ewa a job at his cabaret; knowing that she needs money to pay a friend of Bruno’s to smuggle her sister off Ellis Island, she reluctantly accepts. For Ewa, the dream of America is not as shiny as she thought, but a chance encounter with Bruno’s cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner) gives her the hope for a better life.
Gray’s films (TWO LOVERS, WE OWN THE NIGHT) are sometimes criticized for being slow with some critics going so far as to call them dull. THE IMMIGRANT does have its slow moments, and the film is probably a good twenty minutes too long, but it is never close to being dull. There is so much deep emotion running throughout Gray’s film that it would be idiotic for anyone to say otherwise. The film is rich, both in its imagery and writing, but what most will be left thinking about after seeing it is the two lead performances. Cotillard and Phoenix are near brilliant in this film. Cotillard had cemented herself as one of today’s greatest actresses since her breakout role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s LA VIE EN ROSE, and her portrayal of Ewa Cybulska is most certainly the closest she has come to a perfect performance since then. In this role, Cotillard says so much without saying anything at all; her often quiet performance allows her to appear both strong and vulnerable consistently. Foiling Cotillard’s understated performance is Phoenix’s Bruno. THE IMMIGRANT is Phoenix’s fourth film with Gray, and it is not hard to understand why Gray continues to cast him. Phoenix commands the film each time he is on screen. At times his performance reaches such great levels of intensity, that it almost seems like he may be overacting. Thankfully, as THE IMMIGRANT is a melodrama, Phoenix’s extremities are perfectly acceptable, and work quite well to develop his character.
For the most part, THE IMMIGRANT is a rather depressing film. It is tough to watch Ewa continually compromising to get the things she wants. While the film does have the aesthetic of an older, silent film, it still manages to remain completely modern, drawing on themes that are also relevant today. Gray slowly guides the film toward what is one of the greatest final images in recent cinema, and it is well worth the remarkable journey to get there.