1921. In search of a new start and the American dream, Ewa Cybulska and her sister Magda sail to New York from their native Poland. When they reach Ellis Island, doctors discover that Magda is ill, and the two women are separated. Ewa is released onto the mean streets of Manhattan while her sister is quarantined. Alone, with nowhere to turn and desperate to reunite with Magda, she quickly falls prey to Bruno, a charming but wicked man who takes her in and forces her into prostitution. And then one day, Ewa encounters Bruno's cousin, the debonair magician Orlando. He sweeps Ewa off her feet and quickly becomes her only chance to escape the nightmare in which she finds herself.
James Gray’s The Immigrant is a beautiful and tragic tale of one woman’s struggle in 1920’s America. It captures the look of the era through its amber tones and period settings, but never compromises on the grimness of its debauchery. It features remarkable and complex characters, but never leads them down a predictable path. Though often dark and tearfully depressing, the rollercoaster ride of a drama it takes us on keeps this period piece incredibly infatuating for all its slow pacing.
Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish immigrant who arrives in New York in the worst way. Her sister is detained on Ellis Island to be screened for disease and her relatives living in the city have abandoned her. With nowhere to go and no one to help her out, she is lucky enough to draw the attention of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a local businessman who provides her shelter. Bruno appears as a kind soul at first, warmingly inviting her into his home and explaining the ins and outs of the American system. But the more Ewa learns about him, the more fearful she becomes. Bruno runs a local strip joint and off-the-books brothel for which he forces Ewa into the fold. The girls of the business do their best to comfort her, but she still sleeps with a knife under her pillow.
She finds herself trusting no one in her laser-focused desire to be reunited with her sister. When Bruno sells her off to a customer for sexual favors, Ewa maintains her stiff upper lip and goes along with the act. But she makes it abundantly clear to Bruno that she hates him and that the sight of her sister will not grow foggy among all the filth in the world. The only friend she finds is in Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), an illusionist with a heart of gold. He’s eager to get Ewa to her ultimate goal which angers Bruno. It’s not that she is Bruno’s main attraction of his show or even that she ranks in the most cash. It’s because Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but cannot display his affection as the shrewd man of business he has become.
Marion Cotillard delivers a powerhouse performance as Ewa. Despite all her misfortunes and the lost look of melancholy eternally etched on her face, the character still keeps the hope buried under her exterior. On the outside she is a frightened woman who acts like a deer in headlights. But on the inside she has a primal force of survival and dedication to family that only bares its fangs in rare moments of defense. What’s most intriguing about her character is that her heart still pulls her back from the tantalizing desires of revenge. Bruno is a despicable man who is tortured by his frustrations of money and acclaim. But when given the opportunity to kick the man when he is down, she refuses. She can still see through all his toxicity that there is a damaged man. And while she may not share his feelings out of pity, she still takes pity for the man who ultimately wanted to help her.
The New York setting does not dumb down for this period drama. The cops are portrayed as corrupt individuals that beat citizens and spew as much racism as the saliva they wretch on their targets. The atmosphere of moral decency bares down heavily on our female protagonist. She is initially stopped on Ellis Island for her “loose morals” in providing sexual favors on the ship ride over. The irony being that her means of surviving on the streets of New York is to make her morals even looser. It must’ve taken every ounce of her conviction to continue on without bursting into hysterics or going on a crazy murder spree. The faith she displays in the system for getting back her sister is an enduring journey that rewards her, but not without much heartache and sacrifice.
The Immigrant succeeds at being a stunning depiction of an age of corruption with characters who struggle in its quicksand. It has plenty to say and gives the actors plenty to work with in a serious story of real characters. There is a surprising amount of depth and passion in the performances for the love triangle in which the girl ends up with nobody. The payoff is a bittersweet realization that there is some love in a world so dark, but you have to look hard through the grimy exteriors. What a beautiful movie that never lets us have an easy answer or a simple character.
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Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Classification is to be confirmed by the British Board of Film Classification
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