"The Immigrant," starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, is one of those prickly period pieces about hard times that gets under your skin and leaves you unsettled long after.
Though its story is far more about survival than love, there is a sense of seduction in director James Gray's new film, a wolf in sheep's clothing quality. Not unlike Bruno Weiss, the dandy who trolls Ellis Island for pretty girls in bad straits played so well by Phoenix.
Cotillard's Ewa Cybulska is one of those weary and desperate beauties, a world away from her edgy portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007's "La Vie en Rose," which would win her an Oscar. Ewa and her sister, Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk), are just off the boat, still awaiting clearance to enter the country. It's a compelling opening scene, the endless lines, the empty faces, so many fates hanging in the balance, and opportunists like Bruno moving through the sea of humanity like sharks.
The sepia-saturated scene immediately evokes that vast influx of refugees in the '20s and '30s. The period detail achieved by production designer Happy Massee, costume designer Patricia Norris, and captured so beautifully by cinematographer Darius Khondji is outstanding. Composer Chris Spelman adds a bluesy jazz-age sound that is terrific — weeping when it needs to, carefree when that's called for later.
A bad cough that Belva can't stifle quickly separates the sisters and sets the conflict in motion. Belva's sent to the hospital ward and marked for deportation. Ewa is likely headed back to Poland as well unless someone steps in to sponsor her. All the while, Bruno is circling. His offer comes at a desperate time for Ewa, his help extended like a favor she is lucky to get. And so begins Ewa's life in this country — in debt to a stranger, the price of admission a high one, any promise of opportunity in America apparently not meant for her.
Written with Richard Menello, "The Immigrant" is Gray's most ambitious film. Despite rocky moments and a few ill-fitting pieces, it is intimate in its telling and more affecting for it. As with most of the filmmaker's work, if Gray has to choose sides, the have-nots will get his vote every time. He's a good guy to have in your corner. His collaboration with Phoenix — who's starred in all of Gray's films except the first, 1994's "Little Odessa" — continues to deepen, though 2008's "Two Lovers" remains my favorite.
The New York that Bruno brings Ewa into is a weird mix of the familial and the sinister. He has a troupe of girls who perform in his nudie revue. The house of entertainment is run by Rosie Hertz (Yelena Solovey), matronly toward the girls but shrewd when it comes to business. For a price, the patrons can buy private time. For Ewa, it is one more thing to resist until she can't.
The theme of compromise as the price of progress in this country is a compelling one. It's never more sharply drawn than when Bruno is trying to push Ewa into her first assignation. There is an intensity Cotillard brings to her resistance that is both defiant and broken. You can literally see reality etching itself on the actress' face. Not in great waves, rather the stiffening of her chin, the glare in her eyes, as hope is chipped away.
The actors overall do a very good job of scratching the underbelly of the immigrant experience. Phoenix takes on the mercurial Bruno like a challenge, and it is quite remarkable to watch him turn on a dime. Cotillard tamps down her emotions so deeply that she carries the look of an animal that's been stunned. It fits Ewa's situation, washed up on our shores penniless and paperless, soon at Bruno's mercy.
It makes watching the relationship between them fascinating — two great wills battling it out. Ewa's determination to get her sister off Ellis Island informs every choice she makes and drives the film. A moment in a church, confession at her darkest hour, crystallizes the cost.
Things brighten when Orlando the Magician (Renner) makes his appearance. Not just for Ewa but for the entire film, it's hard not to wish he'd shown up sooner and stayed longer. Renner is charming as the trickster, and it's a nice change of pace for an actor who usually goes dark, albeit impressively so, in dramas like "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town," which earned him Oscar nominations.
For all of Orlando's sleight of hand — on stage and off — he truly falls for Ewa. And she is enchanted by him. That Bruno is his cousin is a complication that changes the course of the film. It also becomes the catalyst for Ewa to try to alter her destiny.
Though the film is sometimes as fraught as the immigrant experience, in the end the ideas are so rich, the look so lovely, Ewa's journey so heartbreakingly real, even the flaws seem to suit it.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes