James Gray’s The Immigrant is a historical throwback within a historical throwback. Set on the Lower East Side of New York in 1921 and filmed with the stately leisure of a Dr. Zhivago–era Hollywood epic, The Immigrant at times also recalls an even older performance tradition from the same neighborhood: the Yiddish-language melodrama. Though it isn’t set in a Jewish milieu—only one of the film’s main characters, Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno Weiss, is explicitly designated as Jewish—The Immigrant’s story, with its themes of innocence defiled, feminine self-sacrifice, and up-by-the-bootstraps struggle, can easily be imagined unfolding onstage in the early 1900s in a theater on the same cramped, bustling streets where this film takes place.
The immigrant of the title is not Bruno Weiss but Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard), a Polish Catholic who, in the movie’s first frames, debarks at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Magda is diagnosed with lung disease and shunted off to the infirmary, awaiting possible deportation if her condition doesn’t improve. Ewa, accused by other passengers of being a woman of “low morals” because of an unspecified shipboard incident, is on the verge of being deported herself when she’s rescued by a stranger—Phoenix’s Bruno—who offers her a place to live and a job sewing costumes for his theater.
But as Ewa soon learns, the nightly performances at Weiss’ theater are little more than burlesque-style advertisements for his real wares: the women, whom he peddles privately to his less-than-gentlemanly clients. The shy, unworldly, and beatifically gorgeous Ewa is conscripted to play the Statue of Liberty onstage and soon after introduced—gently but firmly—to a life of prostitution by the mercurial, hard-drinking Weiss. Ewa, who saves up her earnings to pay for her sister’s care, enters into a complex relationship with her employer/exploiter. He’s half in love with her, yet seemingly untroubled by the spectacle of her daily degradation; she openly professes her hatred for him, but can never resist helping him out of a jam.
The plot winds up tighter (and creaks a little) when Bruno’s cousin Emil (an uncharacteristically lighthearted Jeremy Renner), a stage magician, takes a job at the theater and begins to fall for Ewa, too. Emil wants to start a new life out west and bring Ewa with him—but Bruno isn’t keen to let go of the woman who’s become both his love object and one of his top moneymakers.
Gray (who co-wrote the screenplay with the late Richard Menello, and also wrote and directed Little Odessa, We Own the Night, and Two Lovers) is an expert at creating dense, textured social milieus for his lost-soul characters to move through. One of The Immigrant’s many pleasures is its detailed recreation of working-class life in 1920s New York (including several scenes at Ellis Island which, unlike most cinematic depictions of that great clearinghouse for the huddled masses, were actually filmed on location). The film’s credits thank New York’s Tenement Museum, whose neighborhood tours involve pristine re-creations of tenement life that The Immigrant sometimes resembles: Even as you marvel at the verisimilitude of the details, you’re aware of the artificiality of the whole construct.
I appreciate Gray’s emotional expansiveness and his willingness to let his actors hit the big, arguably conventional notes proper to melodrama: stoic suffering, tender mercy, slow-boiling fraternal rage. Joaquin Phoenix, who’s worked with Gray on several films now, isn’t at his best as the ineffable Bruno Weiss—maybe because the character as written is a little too ineffable. (His motivations and pathologies seem to mutate scene-to-scene as required by the story.) But even Phoenix’s B acting is something to see, and if the hot-tempered Bruno never quite coheres as a character, at least the actor playing him gets the chance to cycle through an impressive range of affects, concluding with an almost feral scene of despair and self-loathing.
Marion Cotillard has much less to work with as the pious Ewa, whose main character trait throughout is her steel-willed devotion to her ailing, absent sister—a laudable quality to be sure, but I wanted to see more of Ewa’s own conflicted interiority, her repulsion, resentment, and desire. I don’t think the very talented Cotillard (who learned to speak Polish for the role) is to blame for the blurriness of her character. It’s hard to write a heroine this purely good without running the risk of idealization, and Ewa sometimes seems more like a devotional icon than a flesh-and-blood woman.
The Immigrant looks and sounds spectacular, with fog-bound cinematography by Darius Khondji (who has experience lighting Cotillard’s fascinating face from his work on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) and a lavish musical score by Chris Spelman, which incorporates cues from 19th-century opera and uses an old-fashioned melodic leitmotif to accompany Ewa’s frequent reaffirmations of her resolve to endure. I’m not quite sure why The Immigrant, with its three strong lead performances and richly evoked period setting, kept me at such emotional distance throughout, admiring the film’s technical artistry while resisting its dramatic pull. I wanted to fall under this movie’s spell as if watching one of those early 20th-century immigrant melodramas—instead, it felt like visiting a meticulously appointed but too-tidy historical museum.