The first hour of “The Immigrant” is stunning in its cinematography that’s both gritty and glowing, its set-up of the plot, its immediate insights into the main characters and its perfect rendition of the look and texture of the lower east side of New York in 1921. Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a young Polish woman escaping to America with her consumptive sister and hoping to be met at the ship by her aunt and uncle. Instead, the sister is remanded to the Ellis Island infirmary for six months, no one shows up to greet them and Ewa is scheduled for a hearing prior to being deported for low moral behavior on the ship. Cotillard is an actress whose face, even in repose, conveys all sorts of emotional undertones and this is a part that gives her free rein to express the full range of human responses - disappointment, gratitude, fear, anger, shame, love and forgiveness. She manages to do all this with unusual restraint, considering the drama of her situation. Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno Weiss, an oversized character who is both burlesque impressario and pimp, and though he isn’t averse to using his stable of women, he also genuinely cares for them and pays them a fair share of their earnings. He first appears at Ellis Island and rescues Ewa from the line for rejects, paying off the immigration agents to remand her to him and bringing her into the double-edged quagmire of protection at the price of degradation.
Ewa has the face of an angel but she has witnessed the murder of her parents and undoubtedly many other grotesque events in Poland and she is capable of making quick adjustments to the exigencies of her unexpected situation; she is smart enough to also make demands for greater compensation. A nightmarish rebuff by the family she was searching for tightens the vise around her, narrowing her options and leaving her hostage to the life of a prostitute, albeit one who is adored by her pimp. Even the bit parts are perfectly cast and Marion Cotillard’s Polish is a fluent and well-accented tour de force.
With the graceful, balletic entrance of Jeremy Renner as an incomparable magician, the movie ups the ante, creating a rival for Ewa’s attention and pushing Joaquin Phoenix down a too-familiar road of histrionic violence and impending explosive actions. He’s melted down in so many recent movies that it now ceases to frighten us and instead, turns the movie into melodrama with a predictable outcome. More back-stories are revealed regarding the relationship between Renner and Phoenix and the jealousy between the prostitutes until the ample frame of the original plot becomes overladen with too many sidebars that simply weigh it down.
Despite this cavil, this is a serious movie that reminds us of how difficult the adjustment was to the realities of emigrating, how very far it was from the dream of new beginnings in a country envisioned with gold-paved streets, and how much courage it took for millions of ordinary people whose stories often became as extraordinary as this one.
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