At the start of The Immigrant, Polish refugee sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) are thrilled to arrive at Ellis Island in 1923 New York. Their happiness is short-lived, though. Magda is diagnosed with tuberculosis and quarantined. Ewa’s aunt and uncle, who were supposed to pick her up, are no-shows, and her unspecified behavior on the ship that brought her to the United States was deemed to be of “low morals” by the authorities. She’s only been in America for a few hours, and already she’s designated for deportation.
Then a friendly, charming American, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), steps in and assumes responsibility for Ewa, who guardedly goes along with him. Bruno takes her to his cramped but cozy Lower East Side apartment, offers her food and a place to rest. Ewa is no innocent — she goes to bed with a shiv hidden underneath her pillow — but she’s broke, desperate and has no choice but to accept the kindness of this stranger, who seems to want nothing from her. Soon, however, the reasons for Bruno’s good Samaritan act are revealed.
The Immigrant was directed and co-written by James Gray, whose previous movies ( The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers) often centered on troubled families, related by bloodline or circumstance, working out their differences against a backdrop of genre. The Immigrant, too, hinges on the strained relationship between Bruno and his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a traveling magician who falls in love with Ewa at first sight (the feeling is mutual).
But this is the first film Gray has made with a female protagonist — he wrote the part specifically for Cotillard — and he gives the character the same resilience and resourcefulness usually reserved in movies for men. Ewa doesn’t need rescuing: She just needs a little help establishing a foothold in this hostile foreign land, and when backed into a corner, she forces herself to do things that violate her Catholic faith, all in the hope of being reunited with her sister.
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This is the fourth film Gray has made with Phoenix, and their most fruitful collaboration to date. Bruno is a complicated character: He’s capable of being kind and compassionate, but he’s also manipulative, shady and prone to violent bursts of temper, and Phoenix refuses to reduce the character to a simple type. Even at his most reprehensible, when he’s exploiting needy women in the worst ways, the actor never succumbs to moustache-twirling clichés. Bruno is a businessman, first and foremost. He means no one any harm (well, almost no one), and as the story unfolds, he even starts to develop a conscience.
Shot by the great Darius Khondji ( Seven, Evita) in evocative sepia tones, The Immigrant captures the feel and look of its era, and the actors blend nicely into the period atmosphere (even Renner, known mostly for modern-day heroic types, fits right in). Gray keeps the pace hopping with an actual plot where most films of this sort would settle for delving into the heroine’s situation, and the performances are so strong that The Immigrant engages you despite the specificity of its long-ago premise. “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” a tortured Ewa asks a priest during confession. The ambiguous answer, according to the movie, is maybe — but so what?