James Gray obviously has a strong connection with New York; that much is obvious from watching the five feature films he has directed. Each of these offerings are set in the city that never sleeps and, in each case, the city itself is more than just a backdrop. The social and political fabric of New York during the time in which each story is set always plays a pivotal role in narrative and characterisation. With his latest offering, The Immigrant, Gray takes us back to the New York of 1921 amid the influx of those fleeing Europe in the aftermath of World War 1. Amongst those who have arrived on Ellis Island seeking entry into America are Polish sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan). When Magda is deemed too sick to be granted immediate entry and whisked away to the infirmary, Ewa is subsequently – and somewhat dubiously – deemed a woman of “loose morals” and is also denied entry. It is only the intervention of the seemingly benevolent Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) that ensures Ewa is granted leave from the island.
Gray and Phoenix have worked together on three previous occasions (The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers) and there is obviously a kinship between the pair, however it is Cotillard who shines the brightest in a film that is an otherwise dark affair, both visually and narratively. The French actress has a mesmerising screen presence and is blessed with enormous talent, both of which are combined to great effect in her portrayal of a woman forced to endure myriad indignities in her bid for a better life. Gray claims that he wrote the film especially for Cotillard after meeting her over dinner and is also quoted as declaring her the best actor with whom he has worked. Certainly, her performance here as the fragile yet feisty Ewa only serves to justify such ebullient exaltations.
Needless to say, Phoenix’s Bruno is not all he seems – charming one minute, prone to fits of rage the next – and soon enough Ewa finds herself mired in his seedy world of low-rent entertainment and prostitution, having been rejected by relatives she thought would lend assistance. Despite everything Bruno puts her through, Ewa remains stoic; spiritually and emotionally off-limits to all and sundry and determined in her resolve. Scheming and scamming when necessary, she remains solely focused on getting her sister out of quarantine to make a fresh start in America. In fact, it is Bruno who suffers from a lack of self-worth, a weakness that Ewa needs to exploit if she is to achieve her objective. When Emil (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s well-intentioned but somewhat hapless magician cousin, enters the fray and instils hope in Ewa, a battle for her affections ensues.
With a look that suggests the influence of Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographer Darius Khondji (Stealing Beauty, Magic in the Moonlight) shot on 35mm film and has drenched The Immigrant with a hazy almost sepia-like hue that very effectively imbues the film with the low light aesthetic of the candles and gas-lit lamps of the time. In fact, all of the period details are quite impressive and whilst the atmosphere of The Immigrant is somewhat bleak overall, the ending – and the final shot in particular – is both haunting and hopeful. Following fabulous performances in the likes of La Vie en Rose, Inception and Rust and Bone, Cotillard has again proved herself one of the finest screen actresses in the world today, somehow presenting Ewa as both dignified and vulnerable with a subtlety that is utterly compelling. Whilst The Immigrant suffers from a lack of context for Bruno’s behaviours and the somewhat underutilised narrative opportunities surrounding Emil, such shortcomings are easily overlooked because we are ultimately only interested in Ewa and her steely determination to endure whatever is necessary to reach her objective.