Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Nudity and some Language
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: Ric Menello & James Gray
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Yelena Solovey & Dagmara Dominiczyk
It’s surprising that THE IMMIGRANT (which played Cannes last year and lost the highly coveted Palme d’Or to BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) wasn’t labeled an Oscar contender last year (due to the asinine decision to delay the film until Summer 2014). Part of the blame for this move should be squarely placed on the shoulders of the Weinstein Company, having earned a dire reputation for constantly giving their filmmakers and films a raw deal (e.g. SNOWPIERCER). The rest can be leveled at director/co-writer James Gray himself. While there are areas that radiate with excellent filmmaking, THE IMMIGRANT has some noticeable problems that detracted from my overall appreciation of the movie. The story being told and the classy way that Gray sticks to telling it hearkens back to an era of filmmaking that isn’t seen too often in these modern times. This movie would have been right at home during the 1950’s and that’s both benefits and detracts from the quality.
The time is 1921 and the place is Ellis Island. Ewa and her sister, Magda, have arrived from Poland only to face complications of legally getting into America. Magda is suffering from a bad illness and being kept in the Ellis Island infirmary, while Ewa is “lucky” enough to befriend a seemingly kind man named Bruno. Bruno is a pimp on the lookout for fresh young “talent” and sends Ewa into a downward spiral of prostitution that makes her existence a living hell. After meeting Emil, a talented street magician, it appears that Ewa may have found a glimmer of hope that makes life worth living after all. Thus enters a battle of wills between Emil and Bruno, of which Ewa hopes to come out unscathed with Emil.
THE IMMIGRANT boasts some impressive cinematography and great performances. Marion Cotillard is arresting and sucks the audience into the character of Ewa. I felt for this poor young woman wanting a small slice of the American dream, but falling victim to a cruel world and unforgiving society. Jeremy Renner is Emil (a.k.a. Owen the Magician) and while he’s good, it felt like his character didn’t have a whole lot of screen time. He served the purpose as a love interest for Ewa and was clearly giving it his all, but the character wasn’t developed enough for his performance to be called outstanding. Finally, there’s Joaquin Phoenix (an actor impossible to typecast). As Bruno, I absolutely hated Phoenix from his first appearance. It’s not that his performance is bad, but rather so good that I found him to be a despicable excuse for a human being. There are moments that do flesh him out into far more than just a cardboard villain and I reveled that the role of Bruno was actually a character, not a mere moustache-twirling caricature.
For a movie revolving around a Polish woman forced into a life of prostitution, everything is very restrained here. There’s not a whole lot of sexual content thrown up on the screen and the viewer is shown just enough to know the true misery that Ewa is going through. Again, director James Gray takes a classy approach to a dark subject. All of the set design and costumes whisk the viewer back into the 1920’s. The film is very accomplished as a period piece. The nagging thing is that some plot elements were done in an excellent fashion and others either seemed to be rushed or unnecessary. It almost seemed as if Gray and co-writer Rick Menello didn’t know which angles to follow and which ones to disregard, so every possible direction was thrown onto the screen and the film sadly suffers for that.
While the dishonest relationship formed between Ewa (Cotillard) and Bruno (Phoenix) felt genuine, the introduction of Emil (Renner) needed some more time thrown in to be believable. The same can be said about Ewa’s rivalry with a jealous Polish whore. The angle of Ewa’s Catholic faith giving her strength also felt a tad unneeded. It’s not because the movie takes a faith-based preachy high ground (in fact, it’s quite the opposite), but this was another ingredient thrown into the story that felt rushed. Even with these pacing issues and unneeded story threads, the film does far more things right than it gets wrong. The haunting final shot packs such an artistic symbolism (not subtle in the slightest) that sends the movie out on a very satisfying note.
THE IMMIGRANT doesn’t necessarily re-invent the wheel. The plot elements are familiar and this time period has been captured in film before, but the movie succeeds as a sophisticated story told in a lavishly constructed atmosphere. The performances from everyone range from good to fantastic, some suffering from underwritten characters. The script could have used some final touches that either expanded certain plot points or cut them out completely. With these flaws taken into consideration, THE IMMIGRANT still stands as a powerful movie. It also winds up being very good, when it could have been great.