The Immigrant Review

Posted: November 8, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

the-immigrant-2013.14703Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

I remember early in the summer hearing about a little film called The Immigrant and being shocked to see it starred Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. How had this film just slipped by me? Looking into it, that seemed typical for director James Gray. Gray has directed a number of films which all seem to be fairly regarded, but none have caused a true sensation. And so it was with The Immigrant, which received strong reviews, if not overly enthusiastic. Still, given the amount of talent in the cast, I had a feeling The Immigrant was not to be missed. I must say, I’m quite impressed.

In the early 1920s, immigrant sisters Ewa and Magda (Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island from Poland. Magda is quickly declared sick and taken to the infirmary, while Ewa is decided to have a deportation hearing. There, Ewa is discovered by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) a successful business man who is able to get Ewa off the island and into New York City. However Ewa quickly realizes Bruno is not an ideal saviour, but a pimp who uses his burlesque shows with foreign women as a way to attract clients. Ewa has serious problems with the work Bruno coaxes her into doing, but she has no other option as it is the only way she can make the money to get her sister off of Ellis Island.

The central thing that attracted me to The Immigrant was the cast, and they really don’t disappoint. Mario Cotillard is excellent as the young and suffering Ewa. She’s an interesting character and Cotillard is able to bring a lot of nuance out of the role. Additionally, Cottilard’s Polish accent is spot on and the subtle changes her character goes through do pop. Joaquin Phoenix is equally good in a complicated role. Early on he has the appropriate mix of charm and creepiness for Bruno, but as the film goes we start to see more layers to this man and he’s gradually revealed to be a lot more pathetic than he initially appears. He’s a character the audience both hates, fears, pities, and sympathizes with, and Phoenix nails the role. Additionally, the two work very well together, with their final scene being particularly powerful. Jeremy Renner’s work isn’t quite as notable, mostly due to the character itself, but he too does strong work and is a more complex character than initial appearances would suggest.

The story at the heart of this film is very compelling. Ewa is a sympathetic character, and I found myself really invested in her struggles. Gray also plays with themes of religious guilt. Ewa is deeply troubled by the work she’s doing. She fears she is acting against God, but she sees no other way to help her sister. To abandon her would be the truly evil act. One could also argue Gray is making a larger argument for the types of abuses immigrants fall into. Cast out by the system and desperate, they often turn to shady and dishonest people to survive. You could go a step further and say that Gray is making a statement regarding how men see vulnerable women as something to be used for their own ends. These themes do give the film an intellectual sense that works, but for the most part this is just a really strong story. I do have some issues with the ending though. Without going into spoilers, a certain character’s actions didn’t really work for me and I don’t think Gray quite earns the ending he shoots for. Granted, this ending does allow for one of my favourite scenes so I suppose I am grateful to some extent.

The film is backed by some really strong filmmaking. The production value is excellent. The art direction and costumes both recreate 1920s New York extremely well. The budget may only have been $16 million, but Gray is able to sidestep that limitation by confining most of the action to lowkey settings and avoiding “money shots”, which allows the film to feel period appropriate without stretching itself too thin. In fact I kind of like the more small-scale, as it is appropriate for the story at hand. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s work is also wonderful. He gives the film a very rich, golden brown type link that feels very natural. It’s very reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather and is perfectly suited for a period drama like this.

All things considered, The Immigrant is one of the most well-rounded and engrossing films I’ve seen so far this year. It isn’t perfect, and it lacks a certain ambition to really elevate it into something special, but the filmmaking is very strong, the story is mature and engaging, and the performances are top-notch. This is filmmaking exclusively for adults, and it’s done very well. As far as I’m concerned, that’s something worth celebrating.


  1. vinnieh says:

    Nice review, I’ll check this out as I’m a fan of Marion Cotillard.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Dan. The cast is amazing here, which is usually the case with most of Gray’s movies. He just lets them do the talking for him.

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