In 2014, any filmmaker who has a feel and a flair for romantic melodrama is doomed, and just one recent example from the world of blockbusters suggests why: In the final moments of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the hero tragically fails to save a major character, but the moment, coming after endless green-screen shots of villains being zapped with spider silk, has zero weight. A plot point that should pierce us is just a mechanical motivation for the lead character to slip into a funk and to decree sulkily—for, it seems, the millionth time—that he doesn't want to be Spider-Man anymore. And so a potentially operatic gesture becomes an expensive shrug. In a world like this, what chance does a period melodrama such as James Gray's The Immigrant have?
To Gray, the director of such unapologetically impassioned dramas as We Own the Night and Two Lovers, the shrug is a foreign gesture. He's unafraid of strong emotion; he doesn't care about looking cool. And with The Immigrant, in which Marion Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant struggling to find her place in New York in the early 1920s, he has made a picture that feels classical but also breathes. There's no other movie on the landscape like it, which is perhaps why the Weinstein Co. has relegated it to a very small limited release: In today's movie-marketing climate, The Immigrant probably has too much feeling for its own good. But anyone who cares about movies, about what movies can be, should try to see it on the big screen. It's as if the ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the tyranny of faded photographs and allowed, once again, to move, think and feel.
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Cotillard's Ewa has just made the crossing to the United States with her sickly sister, who's whisked away by the authorities upon arrival and detained indefinitely in an Ellis Island hospital. Ewa almost doesn't make it into the country herself: An immigration bureaucrat, having heard reports of her "low morals" aboard the ship, informs her that women of her ilk aren't welcome here. Just then, like a knight in a bowler and a celluloid collar, Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno steps in: He gives Ewa a place to stay and hints at possible employment. It turns out Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and with half-courtly, half-cagey seductiveness, he persuades Ewa that the surest way for her to earn the money to free her sister is to join his bevy of salacious beauties. Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face—Cotillard's face—is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied; her radiance is intertwined with her dignity. Bruno tries to possess her, but it's his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters here read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind; scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn't the same as innocence.
The Immigrant was directed by James Gray; written by James Gray and Ric Menello; and stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Angela Sarafyan.
Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes into an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. He does nothing by half-measures, which is one of the chief complaints filed by those who don't care for his movies, that everything he does is just too much. But the too-muchness is the point. Shot by Darius Khondji, partly on location on Ellis Island, The Immigrant is quietly glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light. Gray and Khondji don't glamorize Ewa's situation or her living conditions, but they make them movie-beautiful, believable in a way that pleases the eye; the result is a kind of stylized neo-realism.
Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul; Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. The new world Ewa has entered is hardly welcoming, but she strides into it with an explorer's spirit. Late in the film, trying to reconcile herself with all the unspeakable things she has done to help her sister, she wraps herself in a shawl and enters a Catholic church. "Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?" she asks the priest to whom she confesses. This isn't modern-day speech but proud, defiant movie dialogue, a distinct language that some may laugh at but that others will understand instinctively. Lines such as these are like mutable vessels, changing shape and color depending on what the actor pours into them. Into this one, Cotillard pours despair, anxiety and more than a few drops of defiance. As a newcomer and a woman of little means, Ewa is at a disadvantage in this busy, indifferent world. The naked honesty of her face only makes everyone want to lie to her. But that doesn't make her the liar, and her fearlessness in the face of thieves and tricksters makes all the difference. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you're not wanted into one you can call home.