The story of “The Immigrant” is, for many, the American story — a struggle
to get to The Promised Land, to be allowed to stay and live the American Dream.
But few would choose to own this take on that epic narrative. A laborious,
dull and emotionally barren melodrama, this script is one downer after another,
flatly-written and heartlessly-acted.
Oscar winner Marion Cotillard has the title role, a young Polish woman whose
tubercular sister is taken from her at Ellis Island. It’s 1921, and Ewa herself
has trouble getting past immigration herself. There was an incident on the ship
on the way over. The address for relatives she gives to the INS doesn’t exit.
She’s penniless. They’re about to ship her home when a helpful fellow from
Traveler’s Aid shows up, and with seeming reluctance, offers to help.
Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) is compassionate but blunt, helpful but cagey.
“We’ve all been desperate,” he says, consolingly.
But Ewa is mistrusting from the start. When Bruno allows her to stay in his
apartment, she is on guard. When he changes her suggested profession from
seamstress to stripper, she isn’t shocked. Stripping is just the start of what
he expects. Bruno’s burlesque revue, “Bruno’s Doves,” is basically a smorgasbord
of female flesh that he serves to the howling all-male audience at The Bandit’s
Roost bar, burlesque house and bordello.
Phoenix, acting in his fourth film for director James Gray (“Two Lovers,”
“The Yard,” “We Own the Night”), tries to make Bruno the way the script sees him
— as lovesick and guilt-ridden for exploiting Ewa, as ruthlessly possessive of
her, as the very definition of a “confidence man” until he’s had a few drinks,
when he turns ugly.
And he does turn ugly, because “The Immigrant” is the sort of film where
everybody blurts out, “You’re so beautiful” on first meeting the leading lady.
Jealous rages follow. One of those men is the magician/dancer/hustler Emil
(Jeremy Renner). Taken with Ewa, he promises, like Bruno, to help her free her
Renner makes a nice emotional contrast to Phoenix, or would have, had this
performance had a hint of heart to it. There’s no passion to his connection to
Ewa, and that makes the two men’s struggle to possess her play like some sort of
sick boy’s game.
Cotillard gets most of the close-ups and it is Ewa’s point of view that we
follow and share. She is the heart of a love triangle without any hint of love. Accurate, in terms of the situation and the times? Perhaps. Cinematic? No. Somehow, Gray managed to get a lifeless performance out of the empathetic star of “La Vie en Rose,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Inception.” The character is a canny survivor, but Cotillard plays her as aloof and self-righteous, a front Ewa puts on because she knows what she’s been through,
she knows the shame of that certain unladylike “incident” that happened on the
Ewa is wronged, left and right, she struggles to believe “I am not a nobody,”
and she keeps her eye on her mission — freeing her sister from immigration
limbo. Gray lets us see little that suggests a sense of urgency at her dilemma.
The meandering muddle of a script takes us away from Ewa’s mission as we stumble
into the feud between Bruno and Emil — who have history.
Cotillard has two leading men, neither of whom sets off any sparks in their
scenes with her. Her performance is also problematic because Ewa is a
bewildered newcomer to America, at the mercy of this shark or that one,
dependent on the kindness of strangers. There is little kindness in this
The performance dictated by the script makes Ewa passive. That flies in the
face of the legend of the immigrant experience in America. But worse still, it
makes for weak, watered down melodrama.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity and some language
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Credits: Directed by James Gray, screenplay by Richard Menello and James
Gray. A Weinstein Co. release.