I’ve long been someone who really appreciates the work of filmmaker James Gray, especially his last film Two Lovers, which is truly something special. As such, I was pretty excited back at the 2012 New York Film Festival to sit down and watch Gray‘s new film The Immigrant, even after the initial reviews out of the Cannes Film Festival that year were somewhat mixed. I saw it back then at NYFF and found it to be, well…solid. It looks great, but the story itself could have used a bit more sprucing up. That’s not to say that the script that Gray co-wrote isn’t good, since it is, but his direction and the performances by Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are simply much better (Jeremy Renner as well, just to a lesser extent). There’s an Oscar worthy film somewhere contained within this melodrama here, but the end result is simply a more than acceptable period piece as opposed to something above and beyond like we’d hoped when the movie was being shot. I adored Two Lovers, as mentioned above, so this is a small step back for him, but it’s still among the better works of his career so far. In the time since that initial NYFF viewing, I’d even argue that the flick has improved in its stature for me. The Immigrant isn’t something particularly amazing and it’s rather old fashioned (in a mostly good way), but it’s very easy to recommend and definitely worth your time.
Unsurprisingly, considering the title, this is an immigration tale. We start off with a view of the Statue of Liberty (a very nice choice by Gray) before going over to Ellis Island where Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) are among the huddled masses hoping to gain entrance to America. When the authorities detain her sister due to an illness they’ve discovered and Ewa herself is due to be sent back home for an issue on the boat ride over, she finds herself suddenly “rescued” by Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), a man who seems to know all the right people. He initially appears rather kind and basically too good to be true, but it’s not very long before she comes to see the wickedness hiding just underneath his disarming exterior. Bruno makes a living as a pimp, one with designs on Ewa too. She’s rather reluctant at first, though eventually gives in to his overtures due to a need to earn enough money so she can help out Magda. Life in Manhattan seems hopeless, though a meeting with a magician named Orlando (Renner) gives her at least a glimpse of a different future, and perhaps even a chance at love. It’s a quiet story, one told with languid pace that actually seems at home with the material.
Marion Cotillard is the main attraction here and she doesn’t let you down. Cotillard is excellent in what isn’t an easy role, doing a lot of acting with her eyes. I wouldn’t say she’s nomination worthy, but it’s a very strong performance. While Cotillard is the star, Joaquin Phoenix adds another very solid collaboration with Gray to his resume, as this performance, while not as terrific as his quietly devastating one in Two Lovers, is nice and showy for sure. Phoenix doesn’t go the usual route that many would with this character, making for a compelling performance to watch. While Jeremy Renner does a solid job, I found it a little hard to buy him in the period setting. That’s just me though, as the work is far from bad. Renner just isn’t as impressive as Cotillard and Phoenix are. Supporting players here include the aforementioned Angela Sarafyan (who’s fine but nothing special), as well as Dagmara Dominczyk and Yelena Solovey, to name just a few role players in addition to Sarafyan, but they don’t compare to Cotillard, Phoenix, and Renner. Cotillard especially is just as good as ever. I’d love to see her work more with Gray going forward, since they clearly work well together.
James Gray’s direction is the other star of this film, at least in my eyes. Gray seems right at home in his first larger scale period piece, showing the skills of a big budget filmmaker while still keeping his intimate feel intact. Whereas his script (co-written by Ric Menello) sometimes isn’t as on target with this first female-centric film of his, his direction is downright beautiful, aided by the cinematography of Darius Khondji. The set design is fairly lush, though it’s often a dark looking flick and even a bit smaller looking at times than you’d expect. Still, it’s very well done on a technical level, so no complaints here about Gray and Khondji’s decisions. Honestly, aside from the screenplay that he co-wrote with Menello, this is in many way’s the director’s most accomplished work. Gray is shooting for something very old school here and for the most part, he’s successful.
Overall, The Immigrant is not particularly an awards contender at all (the small scale release that it’s getting during this season would hammer that home anyway) like I once thought it to be, but it is a nice little movie that’s well worth seeing. As long as you don’t have overly high expectations, you should enjoy it. The Immigrant is a very solid alternative to the big budget summer movies about to clog theaters. You may have to search a bit for this one (or go the VOD route), but for the vast majority of you it’ll be worth searching for.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!