Coming to America in the early 1920’s was supposed to signify a new start and generate fresh cultural experiences for Polish sisters Ewa Cybulski (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, “La Vie en Rose”) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) in co-writer/director James Gray’s elegant, sweeping and moody melodrama The Immigrant. Gray’s (“The Yard”, “We Own the Night”, “Little Odessa”, “Two Lovers”) character-driven expose of the American dream turned nightmarish hard knocks has some guaranteed richness in its vintage soap opera-esque sophistication.
The Immigrant echoes the lost ambitions, evasive opportunities and seedy-minded expectations of people roaming around but not quite reaching their intended destinations. Gray and his screenwriter collaborator Richard Menello create a tawdry, sullen and cluttered universe in an early turn of the century New York City where foreign visitors gravitate to Ellis Island looking to share in long-term prosperity at the expense of shortened hopes that diminish such promising realities. Ravishing yet dejected, Cotillard’s Ewa is the softened soul with quieted radiance who must instinctively play the edgy game survival in order maintain an existence in an urban jungle of chance and chaos.
Departing their homeland in Poland for greener pastures in America circa 1921 had visions of grand anticipation for siblings Ewa and Magdaa. However, reaching the American shores would shortly spell devastation for the sisters. Poor Magda is saddled with terminal lung disease then hospitalized at Ellis Island leaving Ewa alone and at risk for deportation back to Poland. Ewa was deemed a rabble-rouser due to her sailing unruliness en route to New York which puts her reputation in question.
Noticing the jeopardized Ewa’s dilemma in possibly departing the country notorious skin-peddler Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”) steps in to “rescue” the pretty Polish pop tart and takes her under his warped wing. Alienated from her local aunt and uncle and having nowhere to turn Ewa goes to work for the slimy Bruno, producer of the shady Bandit’s Roost burlesque shows. At first Ewa’s duties for Bruno were innocuous but it was inevitable that she would be lured into a prostitution ring. Another one of Bruno’s stable of hookers that he is pimping out in joining Ewa on the streets is Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk).
Soon, Ewa would be torn between two men that want her heart to exclusively belong to them as business and pleasure oversteps its undefined boundaries. Although Ewa was first seen as money-making property in the eyes of the shifty Bruno he develops feelings for her. Of course Bruno’s attraction for Ewa may have been triggered by his reserved piercing jealousy for his cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner), the burlesque club’s magician whose proposition to run away with him and leave Bruno and everything else behind looks mighty enticing.
Can Orlando be the Mr. Right for a disillusioned Ewa and finally give her the rewarding life that she eagerly treasured when coming to America with her ill-stricken sister Magda? What measures will the brutish Bruno take in ensuring his hold on Ewa? How calculating will the circumstances be when Orlando and Bruno are forced to clash in the name of deep-seeded infatuation with alluring Ewa, their curvaceous eye-on-the-prize trophy?
The Immigrant is a stunning production that captures its favorable mystique and imagination through sparkling cinematography and a visual vitality that authentically taps into the early Roaring Twenties period where questionable businesses married into the confines of criminality and fast women–native or foreign–were coveted property pieces in the corruptible hands of opportunistic operators in men such as the Bruno Weisses of the world. Furthermore, Gray’s cynical take on the illusion of an America being the ideal landscape for the visiting doe-eyed hopefuls from complicated worlds of their own is a harrowing revelation.
Cotillard’s Ewa is sensual, detached and could be a prime poster girl for victimization but there is a sense of resiliency and willingness to stay afloat that gives Ewa’s fragile dove a legitimate label of determination. In spite of her entrapment Ewa is solid in both vulnerability and unassuming psychological strength. As Bruno, Phoenix brings to the table a complexity with strokes of darkness and despair that steers this man’s damaged moral compass. Renner’s Orlando is charming and silently impulsive while maintaining the same kind of hunger for a life different from the drab existence he wallows in without any foreseeable challenge.
Beautifully realized and polished, The Immigrant is a raw period piece that reminds us all about the cost for welcoming a freshly brand chapter in the pursuit of nourishing one’s stagnant livelihood and trading it in for that big gamble–or ultimate payoff–that is known as the believed American dream.