The Immigrant, the new film from director James Gray begins in 1921, as a woman and her sister are waiting in the anxiously hopeful misery of the line at Ellis Island. The supposed promised land is at the other end of fairly arbitrary bureaucratic scrutiny, with a single raspy cough potentially enough to deny a person entrance. Gray sets the tone of his film early: it’s not a happy existence in the long, cold shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But that’s only part of the story he’s telling, despite the title. Much of The Immigrant presents the argument, sadly pertinent in our modern era of tellingly skittish reactions to certain hashtags, that as challenging as it may been to be a foreigner trying to integrate into the beckoning, standoffish America, it was nothing compared to the casual persecution that came with being a woman.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, who watches her sister (Angela Sarafyan) gets pulled away and placed in quarantine. Any hope Ewa has of settling in to relative safety and comfort with her aunt and uncle in America, with plans to work on getting her sister sprung from the infirmary, are thwarted when her own entry is refused because of rumors of sexual indiscretions on the long boat journey from Europe. That provides an avenue for an unscrupulous impresario of seediness named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) to sweep in, seemingly to offer refuge, but truly to ensnare Ewa as he has done with countless other women. Exploitation and opportunism rule the day, those most willing to prey on others will prosper, and there are only so many ways for a beset soul to extricate themselves from the web of ugliness. A large part of the power of Gray’s film comes from the piercing quality of Cotillard’s performance, a somber portrait of enduring fragility. At any moment it seems Ewa might splinter apart, yet she never quite does, holding on because it remains the only palatable alternative.
Through the lens of cinematographer Darius Khondji, this bygone New York City has the fuzzy luster of heavily tarnished gold. The movie is draped in lovely period details, but there’s no fussy need to lavish attention on it all. The decaying photograph quality of life takes precedence to showing of the feats of art direction, making the whole project feel like a manifestation of aching memory. Lovely as it is to look at, The Immigrant sometimes falters when I take time to actually think about it much, a fairly common problem for Gray’s features. The authenticity the film is clearly striving for takes some hits when the plot mechanics grind towards melodrama, a tendency only compounded by one crucial turns that rely on a character undergoing a change of heart not fully earned within the narrative. Gray wants to make something that hits with the solidity of brutal reality, but he can’t quite resist a few easy tropes. There’s still emotional resonance to the work–Cotillard alone goes a long way towards making that happen–even if its not just the set dressing that betrays a little raggedness.