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Writer/director James Gray’s film The Immigrant seemed like a sure thing when it hit theaters in May 2014. It had a pedigreed cast of stars in Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Renner. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, along with a slew of other nominations and awards at festivals around the world. And it had overwhelmingly positive reviews, scoring 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.
But like the film’s first shot, the Statue of Liberty shrouded in fog, it soon vanished. It was released in only a few theaters and all but disappeared, resurfacing again on only a few year-end best-of lists. And it deserves to be listed among last year’s best films. The Immigrant tells a microscopic version of the classic American immigrant’s dream, done for a modern audience in an unashamedly melodramatic way. This is a beautiful and disturbing journey that moves effortlessly between hope and despair, promise and regret.
Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish woman fleeing her homeland with her beloved sister Magda after the Great War. While in line at Ellis Island, Magda coughs just a bit too loudly and is taken away for a six-month quarantine as a health risk. Vowing to get her out of the black hole of quarantine, Ewa herself is refused entry into the country. Charged with being a woman of low morals, she quickly gets shuffled off for a deportation hearing.
At just the right moment, a kindly wheeler dealer working for the Travelers Aid Society, Bruno, comes to Ewa’s rescue. Phoenix gives Bruno a veneer of kindness so unbelievable that you might just believe he’s this good of a person. It’s one of the best performances of his career, easily moving between subdued underplaying and volcanic rage. In lesser hands, Bruno would be an oily, mustache-twirling villain. But Phoenix goes so far the other way that one can come close to sympathizing with him. For a while, at least.
As the motivation for Bruno’s altruism is revealed, Ewa’s desire to get Magda out of quarantine burns even hotter—as does her desire to escape the life of squalid servitude ahead of her. When Renner’s character, a carnie magician with an unexpected link to Bruno, shows up and instantly falls for Ewa, the three are thrown into a triangle that takes them farther from what they want, and closer to each other.
The Immigrant is old-fashioned and unashamed melodrama. It has big emotions, anguished speeches, plenty of tears, great rises and falls, and rough violence. These are flavors of storytelling that stopped being cool long ago, but they’re utterly necessary here to tell Ewa’s story. Her plight isn’t that different from that of today’s immigrant, trying to gain a tiny bit of mastery over a world that isn’t familiar, holds little real opportunity, and doesn’t especially want her.
Gray’s New York feels like the real New York of the 1920s: squalid but livable, full of danger, but also ripe with opportunity. He also explores an area often neglected in period films: the era’s popular culture. Characters participate in stage shows, drink in underground bars, experience genuine wonder at magicians, and read the newspapers of their displaced ethnic groups. This is an authentic, lived-in world, and it brims with color and activity—much of it dangerous or illegal.
It’s at a crossroads in this illegal, desperate realm that Ewa ultimately finds herself standing. Can she rescue Magda without losing herself in the process? Her adaptation from meek newcomer to jaded dweller of the underworld is a version of the American Dream that deserves to be experienced—as does The Immigrant. It’s a gripping throwback to another time, in its setting and its style.