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NYFF 2013: ‘The Immigrant’ has great melodrama, superb acting, but plays way too safe

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The Immigrant
Written by Ric Menello and James Gray
Directed by James Gray
USA, 2013

The Immigrant, set in the dusty landscape of 1920s Manhattan, focuses on young Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard). She’s separated from her sick sister at Ellis Island. After being denied from her uncle and struggling to raise money for her sister’s medical bills, Ewa finds herself at the doorstep of shady burlesque manager Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who grows fond of her innocence.  After charming street magician Orlando  (Jeremy Renner) reenters Bruno’s life, he too is captivated by Ewa’s appeal. What results, in a sideswiping devastation of a climax, is the result of a battle between love and survival. Although a beautifully nostalgic portrait, with great performances, Gray’s The Immigrant plays a bit mediocre for populous taste. What starts out having all the right ingredients to make a gangbusters watch, turns out to be blasé by its end.

Working with established cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Amour), the film is shot beautifully on 35mm, giving it a surreal aesthetic right off the print of a sepia-toned photograph. Exemplified as a work of art, the film portrays itself as a Prohibition-era New York centerpiece. When Ewa runs through the streets of sooty New York, weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic, scenes playoff like that of an off Broadway play. Thus, The Immigrant has the look and feel of a classic film, but the bite of today’s edginess, in some ways more than others.

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The Immigrant deals with profound subject matters — sex, drugs, and murder — but Gray keeps a safe distance from the plot without going over the deep end, making it a flimsy R-rated film. Ewa dives into the world of prostitution, but we never see how it truly destroys her ego. We come to realize that Bruno isn’t the protector he portrays himself to be, but never see how outwardly evil he can get. Up to any given point in a character’s development, the script just stops in its tracks, trudging along to get to the next plot point. At 120 minutes, the film can use another 30 minutes or so to flesh out its characters a bit more thoroughly, instead of cutting to an unearned conclusion.

All lead performances here are solid, with Cotillard and Renner playing it straight for the majority of the film. Phoenix gives the more dynamic of the performances, with the thrust of the melodrama coming at the climax. Believable and earnest to say the least, Phoenix’s fulfillment screams Oscar bait, and there is no doubt that Phoenix and Gray deserve get nominations for their efforts. Yes, the film is beautifully shot and has great acting chops. But even from a safe distance, the most rigorous challenges can seem like the simplest task. The problem for The Immigrant is that it needs a bit more oomph, to give it the true respect it deserves.

-Christopher Clemente

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The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.


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