It's been a long time coming for writer-director James Gray's 'The Immigrant'. His last film, the modestly acclaimed 'Two Lovers', was released in 2008, and ever since we've been teased with the idea of a trip back to 1920s New York and the experience shared by many immigrants seeking a better life in the United States. After premiering at Cannes earlier this year, we finally get to see the fruit of his labours, which reunites him once again with actor Joaquin Phoenix, as well as Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner. But has the wait been worth it?
Set in 1921, the film follows Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish woman who is travelling with her sister Magda to immigrate to the United States. At Ellis Island, Magda is removed because of her ill health and Ewa is denied entry into the U.S. because of suspected immoral conduct on the ship from Europe. A quiet and handsome gentleman, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) emerges as her saviour, taking her across to Manhattan and promising to help her get her sister back if she will work with him. Suddenly, Ewa is forced to sell her body for Bruno, who quickly falls for her, and just when she begins to lose hope, a chance of salvation arrives in magician Emil (Jeremy Renner) who promises to help her. But the depths of Bruno's need for Ewa cause the triangle to take an unexpected and tragic turn.
There's no doubt that 'The Immigrant' is a handsome film. Manhattan in 1921 is recreated to perfection, a testament to the production design of Happy Massee and the costumes of Patricia Norris. There's definitely a feel of Leone's New York in 'Once Upon A Time In America' (1984), which I'm sure would have been a major influence, and it's all shot beautifully by the incredible Darius Khondji. There's also little to fault in Gray's considered and detailed direction, and his sparse and economical screenplay co-written with Richard Menello.
However, as impressive a film as it is to look at, it turns out to be a somewhat hollow affair. The narrative moves from episodic event to episodic event, often seemingly out of nowhere, and the tone of the film is so serious that it can occasionally fall into being dull. That's not to say that 'The Immigrant' isn't an intriguing film and one that keeps your attention. The characters are beautifully complex and the world they exist in is endlessly fascinating, but the film moves slowly towards its climax without any discernible reason. Ewa's experiences are heartbreaking, but we aren't given significant moments of light and shade to allow us in. The final result is something of a hollow machine, handsome on the outside but with very little to speak of inside.
As impressive a film as it is to look at, it turns out to be a somewhat hollow affair.
That said, the performances are worth talking about, and it's no surprise that Marion Cotillard steals the film. She is easily one of the finest actors working right now, and Ewa is another tremendously nuanced performance she can add to her already impressive CV. She never allows her to become the victim, instead crafting a woman made from steel. We root for her because of her conviction and drive, simply to save her sister from the purgatory of Ellis Island. Joaquin Phoenix doesn't fare quite so well, relying on similar tricks we've seen before. Bruno isn't much like his character in 'The Master', but his performance isn't far from the same tricks, and while it was impressive in the past, here it just seems like well-trodden ground. This works greatly in Jeremy Renner's favour, as he delivers a far more energetic and spirited performance as counterbalance to the internal struggles of Phoenix. Renner is an exciting actor we've yet to see spread his wings, and hopefully some of the attention given 'The Immigrant' will help that.
While it might be beautiful to look at, there's not much to stir the soul nor the imagination with James Gray's long-awaited new film. It's an example of all the pieces working at the best but not amounting to a film that leaves a lasting impression. Technical skill and great performances aside, 'The Immigrant' lacks the soul is so very badly needs to be a memorable entry into the canon.