We are first introduced to Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) as they queue at Ellis Island, having travelled from Poland to America to start a new life. Magda is suffering from tuberculosis and despite her attempts to cover up her coughing it’s quickly discovered and she is sent to the infirmary, facing deportation or possibly even death. Ewa fairs almost as badly at first, having been involved in something on the boat that led her to being branded as having “bad morals” she is refused citizenship and also faces deportation. Into this mess walks her saviour, or so she hopes, in the form of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who seems to hold some influence with those at Ellis Island.
Bruno manages to get Ewa released and offers her lodging and a job as a seamstress, although quickly she is encouraged to ‘perform’ on stage as part of his group of exotic dancers. The dancing, which is done at a theatre which Bruno does not own, is something of a front though and the girls are also paid for sex. Ewa is very resistant to all of this but she places her sister above all else – she needs money to try and get Magda released – and ultimately she gets drawn into Bruno’s seedy world, ironically dressed on stage as Lady Liberty herself.
Certainly a strength at times is the way in which Ewa remains so saintly despite everything that she goes through, seemingly untarnished by what she has experienced. It makes for an effective protagonist for an audience to invest in but the degree to which she is a compelling character is hurt a little by the plausibility of her remaining so whiter than white.
Cotillard’s arresting performance is something to behold and a great deal of the film hangs on her character guarding her emotions but revealing just enough to the audience to ensure we invest in her plight. It is a masterwork of slight facial changes conveying deep emotions, recalling a style akin to female silent movie stars, and Gray sensibly moves in more with the camera on Cotillard than with other actors to best capture this.
The intimacy with which Gray, and cinematographer Darius Khondji, shoot Cotillard and a number of the more emotional sequences is highly effective and the use of small spaces, within the grand location of New York in the 1920s, is often incredibly claustrophobic and tense. This comes to a head in a sequence in which Bruno and Ewa are chased down tunnels on foot by the police. The sequence is stifling and one feels the very desire to escape that the characters themselves are also experiencing. It is another example of the wonderful but suffocatingly stressful sequences that Gray does so well. See also the car chase in We Own the Night or Phoenix attempting to escape the party in Two Lovers.
Similarly to Two Lovers this is another love triangle tale from Gray and with the entry of Bruno’s cousin Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) the film finds its third point to the triangle. The Immigrant is far from a simple relationship drama though and despite the charm and promises that Orlando brings, compared to the underhand and possibly untrustworthy Bruno, Ewa is trapped by circumstance, struggling to remain pragmatic about what is best for her sister and not what is best for her own happiness.
It’s a heartbreaking scenario to watch play at times, very much in the vein of the tradition of ‘Women’s Pictures’ but with less melodrama, but there are also times when The Immigrant feels a little to workmanlike, with events gradually escalating towards a somewhat predictable climax. What saves it though is the complexity that lurks beneath the surface and a final speech from Phoenix in the last ten minutes of the film reveals so much more texture that it’s very tempting to go straight back to the beginning and watch it through with this ending in mind.
Ending too on a final shot that conveys so much with an exquisite piece of framing it is clear that Gray was interested in a slow burn that gradually peels back many intimate layers. And for the most part this is works in an incredibly satisfying and affecting manner. Perhaps not the most emotional experience one could have, considering the already charged subject matter, The Immigrant is nonetheless a meticulously crafted film filled with rich drama and moral complexity.