The Immigrant (2013) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for sexual content, nudity and some language
Running Time: 120 min.

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Angela Sararfyan
Director: James Gray
Screenplay: James Gray, Ric Menello

Review published May 26, 2014

Marion Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises, Midnight in Paris) plays a Polish immigrant named Ewa Cybulski, who in 1921 has travels to live with her aunt and uncle in the United States with her sister Magda (Sararfyan, Paranoia) for a chance at a better way of life.  Unfortunately, things don't work out, as her sister is immediately quarantined for lung disease and there is no one to pick up Ewa, which, along with a questionable reputation, means she is going to be deported back. 

She is saved by an American named Bruno Weiss (Phoenix, Her), who runs a burlesque show at a local nightclub, where he regularly pimps out his female performers.  He puts her up with the offer of a job as a seamstress, all the while falling for her, but soon cajoles her into working for him as a prostitute in order to get enough money to bribe the guards at Ellis Island holding her sister.  Things get complicated when Bruno's estranged magician cousin Emil (Renner, American Hustle) takes a liking to Ewa, causing lots of friction for all involved. 

Cotillard's performance, her first lead English-language role, is perhaps the best thing about The Immigrant.  It is handsomely shot by Darius Khondji (To Rome with Love, The Ruins), with stellar set and costume design, a good sense of period, and has a nice supporting cast, but the story itself doesn't quite generate enough interest to elevate the material into something truly absorbing.   Joaquin Phoenix does conflicted characters like no one else in the business, in a role written for him by Gray, who has worked with the actor on three prior projects (The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers).  And yet even he can't make his character someone we care to follow.

Though Gray claims he scripted with the two leads in mind, and both deliver quality performances, either the characterizations aren't rich enough to make us believe in these characters, or there is little palpable chemistry to suggest that the film is cast to its benefit.  Though Cotillard is a beauty by nearly any measure, her character seems timid and flat, and one can't readily see why the two main male characters become so infatuated with her that they're willing to go through so many extreme lengths to corral her, which is a big piece of the puzzle in trying to generate any form of narrative momentum.  We intellectually sense but don't emotionally feel their respective plights.

Cotillard lends her character the sympathy necessary, even though there's not enough of a firm grasp on any of these characters to care much about where things end up.  In essence, this is a tale of survival -- of sacrificing what one believes for a time in order to do what is necessary to finally be free, and the consequences that can ultimately prevent that freedom from ever happening.  There's also the irony that the land of opportunity doesn't offer many opportunities for those who don't come in with a modicum of wealth or power to generate more.  Again, it's intellectually right, at least on paper, so it's a major quandary why things feel so stagnant during key emotional scenes.

Alas, for all of its finer qualities, it's a lot of fine parts that don't coalesce into a satisfying whole.  Fans of Cotillard and Phoenix will likely enjoy their performances, but those looking for a gripping story will be like a huddled mass yearning to breathe free from this old-fashioned melodrama that never catches fire.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo