By NATHAN LERNER
Transporting us back to New York’s Lower East Side in 1921, “The Immigrant” depicts the challenges encountered by unaccompanied female newcomers to our country in that era.
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has made the voyage from her native Poland with her beloved sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Upon arriving at Ellis Island, Magda is tentatively diagnosed with tuberculosis and banished to quarantine. Ewa is distressed by the prospect that Magda might be forced to return home. Matters are further complicated when their aunt fails to show up for a scheduled dockside family reunion.
From out of nowhere, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) appears. Reeking of feigned sincerity, he purports to be from an immigration aid society. In reality, the forever scheming Bruno operates a sleazy burlesque show and acts as a pimp on the side. His motives in approaching Ewa are not so pure. However, Bruno convinces the desperate Ewa that he can expedite Magda’s release from quarantine. The evolving relationship between Ewa and Bruno forms the narrative spine of the ensuing movie.
We are then immersed in the world of a Vaudeville-era burlesque hall. There, Bruno touts a nightly girly show for a crowd of uncouth, liquor swilling men. They hoot and holler with wild abandon at the site of semi-clad females, paraded on stage in a series of musical production numbers. The women in the revue are then pimped out to aroused audience members. Although Bruno seems to harbor amorous feelings for Ewa, that doesn’t deter him from coercing her into a life of prostitution. Though initially reluctant, Ewa succumbs to Bruno’s insistence that she will need money to bribe Magda’s release from quarantine. Prostitution is seemingly the only option available to her.
Another putative savior arrives in the form of Bruno’s courtly cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner). Under the stage name, Orlando the Magnificent, he also plies his trade on the vaudeville circuit. Although they are cousins, Bruno and Emil have a contentious history. Their relationship is further strained by their competition for Ewa’s affections.
“The Immigrant” is the latest film directed by James Gray, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the late Ric Menello. At the tender age of 25, Gray made his feature debut as a helmsman and screenwriter with another tale of the immigrant community, “Little Odessa.” It won the prestigious Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. The U.S.C. film school graduate followed up with “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” and “Two Lovers.” These films were distinguished by their focus on the nuances of interpersonal dynamics. While Gray’s intentions should be lauded, his films are often marred by an uncertain through line.
In “The Immigrant,” the audience is forced to endure Joaquin Phoenix as the co-protagonist. He previously collaborated with Gray on the latter’s last three vehicles. Once again, Phoenix resorts to an unduly anguished affect and a stilted line reading straight out of a mumblecore film. While his performance is thoroughly disconcerting, Phoenix does not deserve sole culpability for the film’s shortcomings. The screenplay demands that the viewer somehow sympathize with Bruno, a thoroughly unsavory and opportunistic cad, and regard him as a tragic figure rather than a villain. Even a great thespian would struggle with making this reprobate palatable.
It must be noted that “The Immigrant” is a gorgeously rendered film. The widescreen color composition provided by Iranian cinematographer, Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” “Midnight in Paris”), is stunning. The resonant score by Chris Spelman is seamlessly integrated with operatic flourishes from the like of Puccini and Wagner. Careful attention to period details effectively evoke a bygone gaslit decade.
“The Immigrant” is an intermittently compelling film, which exudes historicity. However, it is subverted by an oppressively bleak tone and the overwrought histrionics of its male lead.
**1/2 R (for profanity, violence, nudity). 120 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com