The Immigrant (2013)
Editor’s Notes: The Immigrant opens in limited release this Friday, May 16th.
Regarded by some as the last classically-oriented filmmaker in Hollywood, writer/director James Gray delivers a period piece steeped in nice detail and less appealing schmaltz. The Immigrant is essentially a melodrama triangulated around a practical-minded woman: think the setup of The Quiet American where a poor girl chooses between the charming idealist and the well-heeled cynic. As soon as The Immigrant’s end credits roll, though, the film’s glow fades like a Best Picture nominee whose title everyone remembers but nobody feels like re-watching.
Though underused as Ewa, a continually put-upon Polish immigrant, Cotillard can add some dark verve to her damsel-in-distress role, flashing boldness but remaining under the thumb of male manipulators.
The cast is competently led by Joaquin Phoenix—a Gray regular from Two Lovers and We Own the Night—and Marion Cotillard. Though underused as Ewa, a continually put-upon Polish immigrant, Cotillard can add some dark verve to her damsel-in-distress role, flashing boldness but remaining under the thumb of male manipulators. Accurate enough for a penniless woman of the time, I suppose, but a little easy in a plot driven by shitty things happening to good people. Phoenix plays a Jewish brothel-owner and jack-of-all-trades businessman named Bruno Weiss. Bruno takes Ewa under his wing and gives her employment, paying her to service his clients so she can save money to see her quarantined sister on Ellis Island. Weiss has a twisted sense of forgiveness, bound to his girls by a common desire to survive in the squalor of the Roaring Twenties (look carefully and you can see homages to Dr T.J. Eckleburg in production designer Happy Massee’s impressive sets). You can imagine him as the kind of Jazz Age Shylock who would partner up with The Great Gatsby’s Wolfsheim.
Enter Jeremy Renner as Orlando the Magician, promising to whisk Ewa and her sister away to California. Here the immigrant story disintegrates into soap opera, but it’s not Renner’s fault (although you can see the talent discrepancy when he and Phoenix have head-to-head moments). As much as Gray has talked up how relevant his work is to contemporary America, the emotional wrangling—egged on by a good original score from Chris Spelman—has more to say about James Gray’s Oscar aspirations than it does about illegal aliens from Mexico. Given a touched-up sheen by cinematographer Darius Khondji, The Immigrant is often gorgeous to look at, and impressively so given its middle-cinema budget.
Beyond pulling heartstrings and imitating pre-Jaws pictures, Gray has the feel but not the soul of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Shameless in its contrivances and bland in its politics, this Competition entry is unusual in that it does not reveal a distinct authorial vision. Beyond pulling heartstrings and imitating pre-Jaws pictures, Gray has the feel but not the soul of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It feels like too much of a toothless pat-on-the-back to congratulate The Immigrant for pointing out that a lot of Americans of the era were anti-Semitic. Indeed, Gray is careful not to offend mainstream sensibilities. Case-in-point, Ewa’s Catholicism is more of a plot point for an overheard confession than a contested part of her spiritual life.
In all fairness, Gray does hit some poignant notes. No doubt any parents or grandparents who came to America is this period will find something to like in Ewa’s story. The film’s finest moment may be when Ewa bites into a banana, skin and all, because she’s never seen the fruit in war-torn Poland. The best touches are in the details, and the worst in the grander gestures. It’s a shame Gray is so committed to resurrecting the forgotten classic style that he risks making forgotten pictures himself.
The Immigrant's best touches are in the details, and the worst in the grander gestures. It’s a shame Gray is so committed to resurrecting the forgotten classic style that he risks making forgotten pictures himself.