It’s not often that a film’s opening shot will linger on the back of the Statue of Liberty. Doing so, The Immigrant sets the stage for a more complex rumination on the American Dream than a simple unbridled optimism or cynical pessimism. And it’s just a hint at the undercurrent of subtle complexities running through the film.
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda are trying to escape to the United States from their war torn home in Poland. When Magda is quarantined for tuberculosis on Ellis Island, and their aunt and Uncle are not there to meet Ewa, she’s sentenced to deportation. Imagine going through all the pain and time, to travel to America, only to be sent back to the boat after less than five minutes talking to an official?
She’s approached by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who uses his connections with the officials to allow her into New York, takes her home, and tells her he can get her a job as a seamstress at his theatre. Ewa is as deeply grateful as she is wary of his kindness, and she sleeps on a cot with a knife under her pillow. Her misgivings are not misplaced; Bruno runs a burlesque theatre where the girls on stage double as prostitutes, and he slowly manipulates Ewa until she too becomes one of his girls. Ewa struggles to distance herself from her work, which she has convinced herself is a necessity so she can pay for her sister’s care and get her off Ellis Island. The plot becomes serpentine, twisting and turning almost at random, but it rarely feels forced or contrived because the story is rooted in characters, instead of an arc of action.
James Gray wrote The Immigrant after meeting with Marion Cotillard, frustrated with the lack of current films starring women. So he wrote the movie with her in mind. Joaquin Phoenix’s role was also written specifically for him, not surprising given that he’s starred in Gray’s last three films. Without these two actors, the film may never have been made. And even now that is has been made, it has barely seen the light of day — or the dimmed light of movie theatres. Its widest release has been 150 theatres; not quite befitting a film nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
The Immigrant as a whole is a remarkable achievement; the high calibre acting from Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, the beautiful set design — 1920s New York is realized as never before — and the subtle soundtrack/sound design combined with the carefully framed cinematography make this film a wonder to behold. Darius Khondji’s cinematography delicately frames each shot; the cold of the New York night is offset by the warm orange glow of faint street lamps. And the rich, muted colours lend an otherworldly feel to the film — it feels and looks old, aged like the slightly cracked pages of a book on a grandfather’s shelf. The script and story may be melodramatic, but the actors and Gray as a director elevate it beyond cliché, weaving through rich questions and answers about forgiveness, redemption, and self loathing that would be at home in a Dostoevsky novel.
The Immigrant’s last 10 minutes may be one of my favourite film endings ever, but it’s difficult to explain why without spoiling the beauty of the scene for those who haven’t seen it. All the hope of the world is contrasted with crushing despair, and the dawning realization that human forgiveness cannot alleviate all of our sins. This is the cap stone in a powerful film that combs the depths of the human condition in a single story, and challenges the preconceptions of the audience.