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Immigrant, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/23/13 11:30:12

"An all-too-familiar story, but told fairly well."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The first shot of "The Immigrant" - the Statue of Liberty seen from behind, through a brownish fog - is certainly the sort that let the audience know just what the next two hours have in store. Director James Gray doesn't stray very far from that image, and while that doesn't make for the most complex of films, it's certainly a worthy entry in its genre.

This sight of Lady Liberty presumably comes from the ship carrying Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), and America is not exactly welcoming to these new arrivals from Poland: Magda's cough looks like tuberculosis, which may put her in quarantine for six months, while not only are the aunt and uncle who were meet them not at Ellis Island when Cybulskis arrive, but the address they were given does not appear to exist. Faced with being deported as an incident on the ship has Ewa accepting the help of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who wants Ewa to do more work than that of a seamstress at a burlesque theater. Things may look up when the theater hires Emil (Jeremy Renner) - aka "Orlando the Magician" - to perform before the girls, although his history with Bruno will certainly complicate things.

What follows on from this is inevitable, and it's to the credit of Gray, co-writer Richard Menello, and the cast, that they don't put on a great show of shock at how Ewa must lower herself in order to survive; as much as she's no eager participant in the skin trade, the audience at least is given some credit for knowing how limited a woman's options were in 1921. What must happen is so clear at times as to make the story seem thin; Bruno outright says that Ewa won't do something because that might jeopardize her chance to see Magda again, and it feels as much like an explanation of how the story works as a threat. Whenever something happens outside of the actions of Ewa, Bruno, or Emil, it seems a bit of an outside force.

The three actors playing those leads, unsurprisingly, hold up their end of the bargain. Jeremy Renner doesn't appear until the movie has been running for a while, but the way he slides in is quite appealing: He makes Emil cheery and pleasant, which not only serves as a welcome contrast to the rest of the gloomy picture, but makes him detached enough from the reality of the situation that he could be a well-meaning disaster in the making. Ewa's reaction to Emil recognizes that; where Cotillard spends much of the movie portraying one form of anguish or another, she also makes sure that there's so much caution to Ewa's reaction that it almost smothers the hope and attraction she feels. It's an impressive bit of variation to a performance that can seem like a lot of being on the verge of tears.

It's Joaquin Phoenix who winds up stealing the show, as Bruno Weiss is the sort of bastard wrestling with his own humanity that Phoenix excels at. Like all the major parts, Bruno is more or less what he appears to be and never has a moment when he is shown to be something else, but Phoenix gets inside the head of this sort of guy better than most, and puts that up there without making him particularly sympathetic. It's a bit of a melodramatic role, but Phoenix makes it feel restrained.

In a way, that's what Gray is doing with the whole film: It feels like a sort of cross between two early 20th-century genres, a muckraking social conscience tale of the poor and desperate told with the sort of restraint and precision usually reserved for the upper class. It does, perhaps, lean on the specific muddy look established at the start to the point where a switch seems obvious, but Gray and company do all right in not making it feel overdone or oversimplified most of the time.

Splitting that difference may make "The Immigrant" a difficult film to really love; it neither inspires turbulent emotion nor shows off the sort of hair's-breadth nuance that often make costume dramas memorable. It's a nice, human-scale, take on this sort of story, and the cast breathes quite a bit of life into their characters.

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