Cementing himself as the great classicist of his generation, James Gray turns back the clock to 1921 in “The Immigrant,” a romantic tale that cuts to the very soul of the American experience. This rich, beautifully rendered film boasts an arrestingly soulful performance from Marion Cotillard as a Polish nurse-turned-prostitute for whom the symbolic promise of Ellis Island presents only hardship. Her travails unfold at a pace that will frustrate today’s attention-deficit audiences, limiting this Weinstein Co. acquisition’s popular prospects. Give it 20 years, however, and “The Immigrant” is sure to hold up far better than its modish competition, an ambitious yet imperfect cinematic classic with the heft and heart of great literature.
From the American canon, novels like Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” offer charitable accounts of the lures and snares big-city life posed on single working women of the early 20th century. Such influences suggest a radical shift from the male-driven concerns of Gray’s strong but underappreciated oeuvre (which includes “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”). No doubt, the director’s newfound female focus owes an equal or greater debt to Tolstoy and Flaubert, as he follows their lead in crafting the picture’s strong, well-rounded tragic heroine. (Never fear: No one swallows arsenic or throws herself in front of a train here.)
Meeting with a naturalization officer upon her arrival in New York, one year after the U.S. ratified women’s suffrage, Ewa (Cotillard) discovers that American immigration policy bars unescorted females from entering the country — a judgment compounded, in her case, by reports from the ship manifest that she may be a woman of low morals. What Ewa doesn’t realize is that she’s being auditioned by “immigration aid” worker and part-time pimp Bruno (an uneasy Joaquin Phoenix), who manages a burlesque theater not far from the seedy Five Points neighborhood where “Gangs of New York” was set a few decades earlier.
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But Ewa and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) didn’t escape war and cross the Atlantic to be turned away at the front stoop of their destination. Though the film ultimately concerns the heartbreaking compromises Ewa makes to adapt to this better life, Gray depicts these transgressions as magnanimously as possible: A scene vital to the film’s tragic tone takes place in the confessional of a Catholic church, where, even as Ewa sounds convinced of her own damnation, the film makes clear that however low her behavior may have sunk, her moral center remains pure.
Despite its conservative budget, the film affords haunting views of the Ellis Island processing center, a hall of dreams where so many fates were decided. To the sisters’ mutual horror, the tuberculosis-stricken Magda is almost immediately pulled out of line and rerouted to the facility’s infirmary. Though her character disappears for the duration of the film, she comes to represent everything that Ewa is working toward. As in Gray’s previous films, themes of relationships and family loom large over this latest project, which serves almost like an unofficial prequel to his other features, in which working-class characters continue the struggle for status in America.
After agreeing to play Lady Liberty in one of Bruno’s girlie revues (a role with obvious irony for the illegal alien), Ewa discovers just how tenuous her situation is: One night, she tries to run away from Bruno’s clutches, only to be turned over to the authorities and sent back to Ellis Island — a limbo state from which newcomers dream of heaven before actually experiencing the hell of Gotham street life.
It is here, back at the start, that Ewa catches sight of Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a streetwise magician. As this immensely charming rapscallion, Renner brings a vitality to an uncharacteristically romantic role, offsetting Phoenix’s oddly wooden turn. Here making his fourth collaboration with Gray, Phoenix ill-advisedly accentuates Bruno’s awkwardness, resulting in a stilted, inadvertently amateurish performance. Naturally, neither Bruno’s intentions nor Orlando’s are as straightforward as they first seem to Ewa, although their connection is complicated by the fact they are family — cousins, to be precise (a convenient dramatic link that isn’t necessarily supported by their behavior onscreen).
Taking his cues from opera while drawing from his own family history as a descendant of Russian Jews, Gray wrote “The Immigrant” with late “Two Lovers” collaborator Richard Menello. The scribes reject the urge to embellish this already-rich world with overwrought language, instead putting spare, straightforward dialogue into the mouths of their characters. (In Cotillard’s case, quite a few of these lines must be delivered in Polish, no small challenge for the French star.)
Gray clearly sees something in Cotillard that no other helmer — not even her husband, Guillaume Canet — has brought out in her before. Recognizing the deep, haunted quality of Cotillard’s gaze, he features her eyes as the soul of his story, counting on their mournful quality to play to the back of the house, even as he resists unnecessary closeups in favor of broad-canvas widescreen as much as possible. Likewise, he seems unconcerned with the immediate payoff of camera placement (although he frames the meticulously researched sets like old photographs and supplies a whopper of a final shot), making choices that serve the performances and support the cumulative impact.
“The Immigrant” unfolds at its own pace, building slowly, perhaps even tediously for some, toward its emotionally cathartic conclusion. This classical approach harks back not only to the silent cinema of the period but also to the ’70s masters Gray holds dear, calling to mind the Lower East Side as seen in such films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “The Godfather: Part II.” Meanwhile, the score marries composer Chris Spelman’s tasteful theme with timeless cues from the likes of Wagner and Puccini — a clue as to the operatic spirit to which the picture aspires.