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Ellis Island has been glamorized as the first thing millions of immigrants saw when they came to America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It must have been awe-inspiring for anyone fleeing wars or pogroms in Europe to see that Statue of Liberty. But the truth was much darker than the elder members of your families may have told you. James Gray's The Immigrant, like the cinema classics that came before it, makes this obvious.
Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish immigrant fleeing the Great War with her sister. She arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with the obvious hope that her ability to speak English well will come in handy. But almost immediately, things go awry when her sister is quarantined. Due to some incident on the boat, Ewa's own status is in danger when she gets turned away. At that point, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) spots her and decides to help. Bruno imagines that Ewa is just like other immigrants he's saved from deportation and he can use her as a prostitute, using her hope to save her sister as the carrot on a stick.
Truth is, Ewa is not just like every other woman, or at least she thinks she isn't. While their destructive relationship continues, both of them think they are always in control, but neither of them are, really. In one of the most difficult scenes in the film, Ewa learns from one of Bruno's other women that she really is like everyone else. They need Bruno for their own reasons, just like she does.
In between that, Ewa meets the magician Emil (Jeremy Renner), who is Bruno's cousin. They also have a tumultuous and violent relationship, as they compete for Ewa's affections. Bruno's personal desires for Ewa make everything more difficult. Is pimping her out really the best way to show love?
Ewa is the real heart and soul of the film, of course, requiring one of the great female performances of the year so far from Cotillard. She is not only gorgeous but incredibly talented and moving. We see the inner conflict between her religious background with what terrible things she has had to do to survive. Is it a sin to seek forgiveness after doing so many bad things, she begs her aunt at one point. That is the clinching question at the center of the film. Is there any way for someone to justify breaking everything you believe in?
Gray's direction is a real throwback to The Godfather Part II or Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America. While the world of 1921 is re-created with such stunning authenticity and beauty, Gray never strays from the dingy realities. The Immigrant does not take place in a world of beauty, but like Leone's film, he presents the film through a filter. It's like a moving old photograph, but in color. The lighting in the dingy dance hall or during Emil's Ellis Island performance are perfect examples of that. It's clear why Darius Khondji has worked with some of the best in recent years, lensing Woody Allen's recent films, as well as Michael Haneke's Amour.
The three leads carry the film completely, as each really have some remarkable scenes. Cotillard can put an audience in tears with her emotional confession, while Renner has an ability to put you at ease. Renner gives another nuanced supporting performance here, that leaves you questioning the characters intentions. As for Phoenix, this does continue an amazing recent streak, although he's not quite as good here as he was in Her or The Master. Obviously, Bruno is a far different part, one that goes all over the place. It's clear that his rapport with Gray (he has starred in all but one of Gray's films) helped here. Particularly in that final scene, Phoenix is at his best, but he's also believable as a weak character at many points.
The Immigrant is a real American masterpiece because it never buys into myths about the era. This isn't about Ewa starting a new life. It's about how she finally earns the right to after passing an unconventional naturalization test.
For the record, The Immigrant made its world debut at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The Weinstein Company decided to unceremoniously dump the film in a limited release over a year later in the U.S. It's a real shame, because this needs to be seen on the big screen and should not be forgotten.
image courtesy of ACE/INFphoto.com