The Immigrant, a new film directed by James Gray, opens with the Statue of Liberty glimpsed through the haze of a cloudy afternoon. It is 1921. On Ellis Island, Ewa Cybulska, a Polish woman escaping war and poverty in her homeland, tries to get her sister Magda to stop coughing. But it’s no use; an inspector notices the cough and orders Magda into quarantine. Later, Ewa is treated with scorn by an official and threatened with deportation. Then, while she is anxiously waiting in line to be processed, a dignified looking man named Bruno Weiss, who says he represents an aid society, offers her help, financial assistance and a place to stay in New York while she waits for her sister to be released from the infirmary. But Bruno is not what he seems.
Gray, who co-wrote the film with Richard Menello, has always favored emotionally complex dramas about people struggling to find themselves and their values in troubled environments. Here he tackles what is commonly known as a period film, a story taking place in the historical past, and he doesn’t cut corners. The production design is fantastic—the scenes of New York life in the early 20th century reminded me a little of the Robert De Niro sequences in The Godfather Part II. The lovely muted tones of the cinematography by Darius Kondji provide the perfect visual touch. What Gray shoots for here, and for the most part attains, is a sense of the tension, fear and inevitable moral conflicts experienced by a penniless immigrant to these shores. This is no romantic view of America, but a stringent antidote to common notions of progress and opportunity.
Ewa, the title role, is played by Marion Cotillard, and here she demonstrates the truthfulness and sensitivity that sets her apart, and which we haven’t seen enough of since her Oscar-winning work in La Vie en Rose. Ewa is a devout Catholic whose realization of the depravity she’s fallen into threatens to shatter her sense of herself. For as it turns out, Bruno Weiss is not a philanthropist, but the operator of a bordello and the promoter of low class burlesque shows. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, a regular in all of James Gray’s films, and here he manages to astonish by creating depth out of a character that seems to be without redeeming value. This is in fact a major theme in The Immigrant, that real people live in a place of ambiguity that doesn’t fit into moral absolutes. Bruno falls in love with Ewa, and that passion won’t fit easily with the way of life that he leads.
The melodramatic elements in the film are intentional—the soul of the America that Gray depicts is drenched in it—and this aspect comes to a head with the entrance of a third main character, an itinerant stage magician named Emil, played by Jeremy Renner. Emil seems to be the opposite of Bruno, and thus a figure of hope and possible escape for Ewa. The conflict between the two men—it turns out that they are cousins—takes unexpected turns.
This is the kind of deeply felt, richly expressive picture that you don’t see very often anymore. In the age of the superhero, Hollywood doesn’t like its stories to be ambivalent. But I’ll take James Gray’s humanist vision of life any day.