– by David Morgan-Brown
Through a hazy and grainy lens, we are personally and intimately involved with the setting of The Immigrant and the character of this title, Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who upon arrival in America during 1921 faces some bad luck and is told she will be deported back to where she came from, but without her ill sister. Fortunately, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) chooses her to be part of his theatre production, which turns out to be more than just magic tricks, so she tries to find solace in one of the competing theatre acts, Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner).
The Immigrant is something of a complicated film played out in an uncomplicated manner. The actions taken by the characters may seen to dress them up as heroes or villains, but within the tough circumstances of this developing America and its lower-class immigrants, we continue to empathise and understand all the actions taken by the characters. This is especially the case with Bruno, who unveils through his kind nature an aggressive and spiteful man who simultaneously cares for and despises Ewa.
Marion Cottilard is superb as Ewa, her dialogue is simplistic as she cannot speak much English and is therefore shy. But it’s her face that really sells the performance, letting us in on her pain and frustration as she encounters the new troubled circumstances she is in. Joaquin Phoenix is generally not to be missed, as an actor who chooses his roles carefully (sometimes appearing in no more than one film per year) and has worked three times before with writer/director James Gray so anything less than a strong performance would’ve been disappointing. I was not disappointed, Phoenix melds into the setting of the film as easily as he has done in any other movie setting he is in, like Cottilard his face does a large number of the acting work — he is certainly the master of the stern, scrunched-up frown of contempt face.
The film is a technical wonder and rather a spectacle to look at, the cinematography is gorgeous, the set-design is authentic-looking and immaculate, and even the make-up design (key to the performers/prostitutes Bruno runs) helps with taking the audience nearly a century back. Leisurely paced, the story unfolds gradually, with long stretches occasionally falling into dullness, whilst other sudden moments of drama are heightened by the casualness of the scenes that surround them. The storyline is so simple (but not predictable) and the glacial speed of the film’s pacing is testing – it’s not the European style of cinematic slowness that calls upon itself, but rather just a lulling form of story-telling.
Although Gray is not always successful with involving the audience in this way, he does succeed in the characters he creates and the situations he places them in, which is helped by the wonderful acting and mise en scene. It’s sometimes tiring to sit through, but is certainly worth it in the end as the characters and plot all go in the right, but not predictable, directions.