Floating in past a misty Statue of Liberty, James Gray's "The Immigrant" somberly gathers its majesty as a metaphor-rich story of passage and survival. It's an old tale told with rare precision, channeling grand themes into an intimate melodrama.
Ellis Island, a portal of hope and new beginning for films from Elia Kazan's "America, America" to Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather, Part II," is here a more complicated rebirth.
In 1921, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives from Poland with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). A cough gets Magda quarantined and immigration officials are set to turn away Ewa (who arrives with rumors of being a "woman of low morals" from the ship). But there preying on such lost, pretty women is Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who, with a bribe and a handshake, pulls her out of the line and brings her to his Lower East Side apartment.
He's overly courteous in a false, snake-oil salesman way. (Phoenix modeled him on Hollywood agents). She's terrified and wary, and sleeps with an ice pick under her pillow. Bruno, a small-time impresario and pimp, welcomes her into his harem of women — many of them not long off the boat, themselves.
They perform strip teases for hooting men in a small theater, and bed them on the side. When they're turned out of the theater, Bruno takes them to a tunnel in Central Park to find johns.
Cotillard's Ewa is horrified by the situation she finds herself trapped in, but she's also resolute to claw her way in New York and to raise money to get her sister out of the hospital. Gray, who co-wrote the script with the late Ric Menello, observes her stealing money from the girls or, to appear healthy for a deportation agent, pricking her finger to redden her cheeks with the blood.
It's not a clear cut story of an innocent exploited. The tenacious Ewa, who witnessed her parents beheaded, has been through worse back in Poland.
And as despicable as Bruno is, he develops a love for Ewa and a contradictory urge to protect her. He rages with jealousy when his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician Ewa first sees perform at Ellis Island, pursues her.
Surely, a handsome illusionist rhapsodizing about the American Dream — as Emil does in his act — is not the most subtle critique. If Emil embodies all the lies of America, Bruno is its ugly truths: capitalistic and shameless. For Phoenix, always unpredictable, volatile and raw, it's perhaps his finest performance — one of sweeping contradictions, roiling turmoil and, as if the cherry on top, a late touch of Brando.
Gray, whose grandparents emigrated from Russia, has made a career — from "Little Odessa" to "We Own the Night" — in portraying the working-class lives of Brooklyn immigrants and their descendants. In "The Immigrant," with its Lower East Side tenements bathed in sepia tones (care of the excellent cinematography by Darius Khondji), he has gone to the source of his font. Gray has said he was inspired by Puccini, and with a staggering last shot, "The Immigrant" reaches a crescendo of operatic beauty.
"The Immigrant," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sexual content, nudity and some language." Running time: 117 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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