Movie Review - The Immigrant

James Gray's film premiered last year at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the Palme d'Or and some thought it might enter the Oscar race, but the Weinstein Company delayed its release to late spring / early summer 2014. The Weinsteins couldn't have known that this was perhaps a perfect time as the issue of immigration would heat up in this film's wake. The current debate centers on children from Latin America, whereas this film centers on adult women from Eastern Europe.

Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, pronounced Eva, a woman from a rural area in Poland. She travels with her sister Magda by boat. The film opens with their arrival on Ellis Island in January 1921. We see first a dreary but glorious shot of the Statue of Liberty. They're examined and Magda is deemed too sick to enter the country, so she's held in a hospital there indefinitely. Ewa is told she is a woman of "low morals," so both she and her sister are denied entry and are going to be deported.

Joaquin Phoenix co-stars as Bruno, a man who runs an all-girl revue, a vaudeville or burlesque show. He's also a pimp, but it becomes clear that he's not using these girls for self-aggrandizement or so that he can wear fancy clothes or live in swanky apartments. He recognizes there's a market for prostitution, and someone will capitalize off it, so it might as well be him. His motives aren't totally altruistic but he does seem genuine in his desire to help the girls.

When Ewa and Bruno come together, Ewa is skeptical, as she should be, but she is told that he has helped other women to stop their deportation or else help them or other family members off Ellis Island. Ewa remains skeptical, but it becomes clear that she's trapped and other avenues become closed off, and Bruno is left as her only option, particularly when it comes to being reunited with her sister, which is her sole motivation.

Jeremy Renner plays Orlando the Magician aka Emil. He's Bruno's cousin who works Ellis Island too. Except, he doesn't collect girls to be in a revue. Orlando simply performs his act. Like Bruno, he starts to develop feelings for Ewa and genuinely and almost desperately wants to be with her.

A tug of war begins between Bruno and Orlando with Ewa in the middle. It's tragic because the person whom Ewa should choose is obvious. It's simply due to the other person being so supremely damaged. Yet, he's ironically the best choice for Ewa achieving her ultimate goal.

What's key in this movie and what Gray is really trying to convey is the idea of forgiveness. Bruno preaches forgiveness at one point, but he uses it as a way of controlling people. Ewa actually exercises forgiveness, as she is a true woman of faith.

Cotillard is devastating in her expression of this faith and her character's quiet strength, especially in light of the fact that it's learned her character is raped. Phoenix is a revelation. His character may or may not understand Ewa's trauma, but he does recognize something in her that is similar to something in him. Ewa perhaps recognizes it too. She acknowledges they're both lost, which is why she keeps going back to him, besides her necessity.

It comes to a head when the film comes full circle and both Ewa and Bruno return to Ellis Island. Phoenix delivers a performance, a final speech that equals if not rivals Marlon Brando's in On the Waterfront (1954). One might be able to argue that Gray is trying to invoke Elia Kazan all around. From the amazing production design to sumptuous details, Gray's film is absolutely beautiful, and one of the most beautiful I've seen all year.

Gray is a director in full command. His cinematography is spectacular. It's obvious he knows how to use a camera to tell a story when in one shot of a reaching hand he's able to communicate so much about two characters at once. Yet, Gray knocks it out the park with his final shot, which is as much of a punch as the final shot in On the Waterfront. It's perfectly framed and perfectly illustrates the direction and relationship of his characters in one moment. Great!

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content, nudity and some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.


  1. It is a story of America, full of daunting unfulfilled promise.


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