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The Immigrant - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Immigrant
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

If you're already into period dramas, then you'll like The Immigrant. If you're not, you won't. It's pretty much as simple as that.

I could take it or leave it strictly on genre terms, but this movie worked for me, thanks in large part to Marion Cotillard as the title character, Ewa (all the American characters call her "Eva"), a woman just arrived to Ellis Island from Poland in 1921. She is there with her sister, who is discovered to be sick and put in quarantine; they say she will only be released after six months if she improves, or else she'll be deported. Six months sure seems excessive, but maybe it's a 1921 thing.

Ewa is extraordinarily vulnerable, yet a step above most of the other immigrants because she speaks English. The Immigrant is really the tale of her survival, as she scrapes together the money needed to get her sister off of Ellis Island earlier. Cotillard plays her with characteristic nuance, at the top of her game as always.

Along comes Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno Weiss, a "business owner" with a theatre group of women in Manhattan, who reaches out to Ewa. In a curious reversal compared to other roles, Phoenix's performance is nowhere near as nuanced as his character is written, in a script co-written by director James Gray. Phoenix gives a serviceable performance through most of it, but there are moments when it feels like he's not completely in it.

The same could be said, though, of Jeremy Renner as Bruno's unpredictable cousin Orlando, so maybe this is a director issue, and Cotillard's thoroughly compelling performance can be credited entirely to her. She elevates material that is already pretty solid, and brings her costars with her.

The story itself is really the draw, anyway: a dysfunctional love triangle in a context very specific to early 1920s New York. Ewa has an uncle and aunt she expected to welcome her to America and give her a place to stay, but the uncle rejects her after hearing rumors of "low morals" on the boat. And it's a long time before she -- or we -- can decide whether Bruno is genuinely interested in helping her, or just using her. In one of the subtlest ways ever seen on screen, Bruno effectively becomes Ewa's pimp. He is deceptively very gentle about it.

There's something very classy about this presentation of a city's seedy underbelly, which makes for a fascinating dichotomy. It's difficult even to decide the degree to which Ewa is a victim, although we can presume what happened on the boat -- and launched the long series of misfortunes -- was beyond her control. But Cotillard makes sure we know that underneath Ewa's fragile exterior, there is a fierce woman willing to do whatever it takes for her sister, the only family she has left. She is not shy about her building contempt for Bruno, who in turn is genuinely falling in love with her, cultivating a concern for her well being even as he is causing its degradation.

As a story, The Immigrant finds strength in its refusal to paint a clear villain. These are well rounded characters, with relatable hopes and dreams, even as they do what they consider shameful things. Orlando seems to Ewa for a while like he might be the one gentleman in her life, but he is perhaps not all he's cracked up to be either. Bruno is consumed with jealousy. This can't lead to anywhere good.

But even in a concept as common as a love triangle, James Gray moves this story in many unexpected directions. The Immigrant is somewhat muted compared to other dramas, with a minimal amount of histrionics, making it a fairly quiet, if tragic, love story. But there is joy even in quiet surprises, and this movie has just enough of those to keep you content and engaged until its satisfying conclusion.

the immigrant

Overall: B+
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