Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published September 7th 2014
Marion Cotillard in typically fine form
Director: James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night, The Yards) Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk
The trials of a Polish immigrant arriving in New York in the 1920s are brought to the screen with middling results in The Immigrant, a muted affair that never reaches the dramatic heights suggested by its emotive premise.
Marion Cotillard as Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) escape a life of persecution and hardship in Poland, but their troubles worsen even before they have disembarked the ship that has brought them to New York. Like much of the film though, the traumatic events that take place on the ship are not shown, only mentioned at several points in the film's dense dialogue.
They are soon separated and Ewa is threatened with expulsion back to her home country. She is saved that fate by a stranger, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who takes her in. Of course, his charity comes at a price. For Ewa, her striking beauty is at once an asset and a curse as she slowly becomes one of Bruno's numerous commodities.
Ewa being cajoled by her opportunist caretaker Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix)
It's impossible not to think of the plight of asylum seekers arriving in Australia while watching The Immigrant, although what they experience is much harsher than what Ewa endures here. Not to belittle the helplessness of her situation in a time of archaic attitudes towards women, but it's pretty hard to really engage with the story as it's told. Anyone who has seen any of Gray's previous films will know he likes to keep things steadfastly dour and generally represses any overt theatrics.
Certainly though no film is ever completely dull when Marion Cotillard is on screen. She is the film's one big asset, always riveting, and particularly moving during a confessional scene. Her Polish accent when speaking English is flawless. I can't vouch for her Polish, but to a non-Pole she sounded pretty convincing. Even by her own lofty standards, this is one of Cotillard's most accomplished performances.
Joaquin Phoenix, who's somewhat of a muse for Gray, starring in his last four films, is a strong presence as always, as is Jeremy Renner playing his warring cousin. All the acting chops in the world however can't overcome the film's flat scripting and direction.
With a sepia-tinged palette accentuating the drab living environs of its characters, this is a pretty subdued experience for the eyes as well as the heart, although the historical sites on New York's Ellis Island lend an air of authenticity.
The Immigrant is a masterclass in acting but it lacks any substantial emotional pay-off.