REVIEW: “The Immigrant” is one of those rare, strikingly beautiful film experiences that transport you to another world. | ★★★★ out of 4 stars
“The Immigrant” is one of those rare, strikingly beautiful film experiences that transport you to another world. It’s set in New York’s Lower East Side in 1921, a churning pool of new arrivals from the Old World. The story is both intimately scaled and a meditation on our national foundation myth, with two very different men struggling for the soul of a beautiful newcomer.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a young Polish woman who arrives penniless at Ellis Island, where her tubercular sister Magda is held at the infirmary. Ewa is scooped up by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a self-styled Travelers’ Aid representative whose business is putting on fleshpot speakeasy pageants and selling his performers to the audience.
With a combination of kindness, intimidation and promises to rescue Magda, Bruno coerces Ewa into becoming a member of his stable. He also falls under her spell, flaring with jealousy when his cousin Emil, a stage magician (Jeremy Renner), takes a competing interest.
The men are a Cain and Abel pair who represent the harsh realities of American life for tenement dwellers, and the American dream. But these characters are not flat allegorical archetypes. Both men, and the pious but fallen Ewa, have shadings and surprises. The story is a tapestry of episodes that complicate our emotions. We gradually see that Bruno, the showman-pimp, can be self-sacrificing as well as covetous, and Emil, whose act is rich with Christian imagery, has a stage trickster’s skill at duplicity. Neither offers a straight path through the woods.
The film has a misty, sepia feel that matches its intriguingly blurred characters. Director James Gray works in a calm, classical style, capturing riveting performances and the jagged beauty of tenement life. His sense of texture, timing, mood and story is remarkable, with citations from the cinema of Chaplin alongside operatic musical cues.
Cotillard is priceless, and Phoenix is searingly good, his confidence and restraint slipping away to reveal a broken man riddled with guilt and sadness. The bravura final scene, an explosion of anguish, is among the most visually daring and emotionally satisfying fade-outs I have seen. This is a grand, tough-hearted, unforgettable fairy tale.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186★★★★ out of 4 stars