The very first sequence in James Gray’s “The Immigrant” identifies the year as 1921, and despite the fact that the film is shot (very beautifully by Darius Khondji) in widescreen and subdued color, in narrative terms it might have come from that year. This is a very melodramatic picture, not unlike a silent of the twenties, and it’s likely to bewilder most viewers. Yet it’s remarkably evocative and compelling, almost compulsively watchable.
The immigrant of the title is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a refugee from Polish Silesia who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Magda is placed in the infirmary because of a lung infection which turns out to be tuberculosis, and could eventually be deported. Ewa’s relatives—and aunt and uncle—don’t show up to meet her, and on the basis of a report that she’d acted immorally during the voyage, she’s scheduled for immediate return to Europe.
She’s rescued, however, by Bruno Weiss (Joachin Phoenix), who introduces himself as being from traveler’s aid but in fact is the manager of the Bandit’s Roost, a combination burlesque house and speakeasy owned by Rosie Hertz (Yelena Solovey), a gregarious old dame who takes Ewa on as a member of Bruno’s ladies act at his request. Bruno also offers her a bed at his apartment, and quickly introduces her to prostitution, explaining that he can help get Magda out of confinement, but that it will be a costly proposition.
For Ewa this is an uncomfortable situation and she tries to escape, but when she finds her aunt and uncle (Maja Wampuszyc and Ilia Volok), they turn her in and she’s returned to Ellis Island. There, during a show for the detainees in which no less than Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja) takes part, she first encounters Emil (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s estranged cousin, whose onstage persona is as Orlando the Magnificent, magician extraordinaire. Emil is immediately smitten with her, which becomes the cause of even more bad blood between him and Bruno, who has fallen in love with Ewa even as he’s exploiting her and arranges her release once again.
This sort-of romantic triangle plays out with predictably tragic result. Phoenix, with his chameleon ability, makes Bruno a fascinatingly complex character, smooth gentleman one moment and a threatening brute the next, both manipulative and self-sacrificing, with a final speech of angry self-loathing that reminds one for a moment of Marlon Brando’s famous taxicab monologue in “On the Waterfront.” Renner hasn’t nearly as much to deal with; Emil is as monochromatically genial as Bruno is multifaceted. But he brings the seedily upbeat note that the character demands.
The focus, however, is on Ewa, and Cotillard brings a quality of wounded fragility to her, capturing her sense of desperation, her determination to rescue Magda and her unease with both her suitors. A woman who has done things she considers sinful in order to survive not only for herself but for her beloved sister, she nonetheless remains a moral, principled person aware of her fall from grace—a point explicitly (perhaps too explicitly) made during a scene in a confessional box. But Cotillard conveys all this subtly, in a performance that some might think too subdued and recessive. In fact, however, those qualities of simmering fear and submissiveness precisely suit a woman who’s seen almost her entirely family killed in war and who’s arrived in a strange new environment without any resources to speak of. Cotillard’s is in fact a finely judged expression of Ewa’s character.
Almost as important to the impression the film makes is its masterful recreation of New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, for which production designer Happy Massee, art director Pete Zumba, set decorator David Schlesinger and costume designer Patricia Norris deserve the highest praise. But all their effort would be less evocative if it weren’t for Khondji’s cinematography, which gives everything the dark, burnished appearance of old photographs and contributes—with the director’s contrivance, no doubt—some stunning compositions, including a remarkably artful final shot that resonates long after the credits come up. Gray has peopled this period background with an array of colorful supporting players, including Solovey, Sarafyan, Wampuszyc, Volok, and the other women in Bruno’s act, especially Dagmara Dominczyk as Belva, who’s suspicious—and perhaps jealous—of her boss’s obsession. And Chris Spelman contributes a lush score with snippets of Verdi and Puccini in the mix.
The operatic flavor is entirely in synch with the film’s overall tone of sour romanticism and its portrayal of the immigrant experience far different from that so often trumpeted in Hollywood movies. The usual picture of America’s promise for newcomers is here counterbalanced by one that depicts the perils that many faced coping with arrival on these shores—dangers that are beautifully conveyed, along with the hint of better possibilities, in that final tableaux. “The Immigrant” certainly isn’t everyone’s story, but one senses that its dramatic excess may come closer to the truth for most refugees of the time than the more benign treatments we’ve often seen.