James Gray has steadily gained a head of steam over the four pictures he has released to date, culminating with the grand critical success of his compelling 2008 romantic drama Two Lovers. With another film again appearing In Competition at Cannes, Gray raises the curtain on what is easily his most-anticipated work to date, The Immigrant, which has previously gone by the names The Nightingale and Lowlife, though has no doubt landed on its final moniker for ripe positioning by the Weinstein Company in the impending awards season.
As soon as Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) arrive in the United States, their circumstances are dire. Magda is immediately quarantined with tuberculosis, while Ewa is questioned for reportedly being a “woman of bad morals,” due to her apparent conduct on the ship over from Europe. Appearing sympathetic to her plight, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) bribes an official to allow Ewa passage, at which point he introduces her to his Prohibition-era bar and theater, and soon enough has her turning tricks in his employ. As Ewa finds little possibility to escape from this life, only Bruno’s magician cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner) seems to offer any respite, locking the two in a fierce battle over the woman.
If Ewa is constantly referred to at the beginning of The Immigrant as a morally bankrupt woman, the dare seems to be whether this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Soon enough, once Bruno has taken her in, we catch her stealing money, and this snowballs into prostitution, with her essentially being strong-armed into moral decline at the behest of the bar owner. The possibility for corruption of the soul seems high, even as she tries her best to edge away from him, though the various road-blocks inevitably send Ewa back into his thrall.
It’s a slow burn for sure, but Gray stems the onset of inertia by immersing us so palpably in this world before he begins dropping the bombshells. Production design from Happy Massee combines with Darius Khondji‘s regal cinematography to help create a fully-realised 1920s New York that in varying degrees is a picturesque haven and also a sleazy, imposing, soul-stripping soup of decay and excess.
That said, for all of the decline that is implied, it seems like a bizarre creative choice for Gray to render such an apparently lurid miasma – no less one that will evidently earn an R-rating – while electing not to depict the nature of that world in the most visually precise manner possible. This isn’t to say that the film requires scenes of Cotillard stripping off and engaging in paid coitus, and indeed, perhaps the film feels itself past such a potentially reductive treatment of the material, but it loses major points on the visceral scale as a result of its near-sterile engagement with the seedier side of its tale.
It is to this end that after a strong start, the film begins losing altitude significantly in its second half. The melodrama slowly sheds the protection afforded to it by the lavish crafts credentials and even the strong central performance holding it together. As we begin to adjust to the picture’s handsome sheen, the chase thriller that it nearly transitions into doesn’t feel quite as water-tight as the character-building that preceded it.
Cotillard, who has earned the majority of the film’s positive attention so far, is unquestionably strong in the lead role, to such an extent that she outshines the film entirely, and will likely be the sole “major” awards consideration the film receives (outside of the expected design elements). The actress’s nimble, sympathetic portrayal almost makes us forget that she’s hamstrung by the script from Gray and the late Ric Menello. Phoenix, meanwhile, might light little of the fire that saw him turning heads left and right in last year’s The Master, but he’s seriously assured all the same if a tad self-consciously mumbly from time to time. The weak link is unsurprisingly Renner who, though evidently talented, is a curious casting choice for the showy, eyeliner-clad entertainer, and never makes the role his own.
Ironic role reversal always goes down well in character pieces such as this, and Gray’s film does well not to deviate from that. It’s just a shame that Cotillard’s impressive performance isn’t hung on a more vibrant story.
The Upside: Cotillard gives a splendid turn, and the film’s technical credentials are not to be sniffed at.
The Downside: Pic loses serious steam in second half and never really recovers.
On the Side: Co-writer Richard Menello died of a heart attack on March 1st of this year.