'The Immigrant' - The First Great Film of 2014

Marion Cotillard is Oscar-worthy in James Gray's gorgeous drama.

(The Weinstein Company)
(The Weinstein Company)

Long story short: The Immigrant is a masterfully-crafted, tense drama with a quietly heroic performance by Marion Cotillard.

The Immigrant will remind you of: The Godfather Part II, Heaven's Gate, Far and Away, Gangs of New York, Once Upon a Time in America, Days of Heaven, Lilya 4-Ever

Review: The Immigrant, James Gray's candlelit, icy vision of one woman alone in a new world near the turn of the 20th century, should be remembered for the heartbreaking work of Marion Cotillard. The versatile French actress has never been more porcelain than she is here. But the style and elegance of Gray's direction give enormous depth to Cotillard's performance and everyone around her. The Immigrant is a rich portrait of America, both aesthetically and thematically, that manages to eschew the romanticism of its time and setting. It's a human experience within the frame of legend, the kind of movie filmmakers should aspire to make.

Gray's film begins as The Godfather Part II does, on Ellis Island, NY but a few decades after Vito Corleone, in 1921. Not much has changed. Tinted gold, like a faded painting, The Immigrant's lasting introductory shot is of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of the hope young Ewa Cybulski (Cotillard) carries with her upon arriving in America. She and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan) have lost their parents and are looking to start over. But both young women are gaunt and Ewa is accused of "low morals." Her sister is taken away to the infirmary, deemed too sick for admittance. Ewa, alone and desperate, is helpless and on her own. 

Amongst the crowd, the camera finds Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) who has spotted Ewa. He's shopping. Bruno, a working class pimp, runs a burlesque show and wants the Polish beauty. He convinces her he can help and keep an eye on Magda as well. In a lesser film, a character like Bruno would be a cardboard cut-out, a personification of the illusion of the American Dream. But Bruno is the film's most complicated personality. He's soft-spoken and humble, joking about his Yiddish and Lower East Side upbringing. He doesn't make eye contact and remains perpetually kinetic. The overwhelming feeling is this is man trapped by life into doing something he loathes, but he does nothing to stop it.

'The Immigrant' - The First Great Film of 2014
Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant. (The Weinstein Company)

Slowly, Ewa grasps the reality of her situation. Bruno's offer of a job as a "seamstress" isn't exactly accurate. But the only way she can get Magda out of the hospital is money. She has to work for Bruno. "I hate you and I hate myself." She tells him. Their tentative relationship is one of necessity for Ewa, but Bruno falls for her. His love for her doesn't stop him from pimping her out though, and his self-hatred reaches new lows. 

The arrival of "Orlando the Magician," Bruno's cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), further complicates things. He's taken with Ewa upon first laying eyes on her and the tension between the cousins builds like a storm. Ewa, still focused on reuniting with Magda, asks for none of this attention but is helpless to stop it. Gray's sharp focus on the human story in The Immigrant keeps the film emotionally effective. He uses establishing shots and style to enhance what his characters are doing. Ewa's isolation is punctuated by sequences that begin with wide angles that increasingly grow smaller until we're in close up with her. She's simultaneously helpless and powerful since she's the object of love and not the purveyor.

The Immigrant's intensely dramatic story is potent but not especially unique. What elevates this film is its impressive performances, led by Cotillard (who should receive Oscar consideration) and Gray's meticulous attention to detail. The movie is a journey through film history, pieced together with the looks of many different genres and times. Each shot is a comment on setting or character. Each decision is made with intelligence and purpose. The sum of the equation is a period film that feels distinctly modern, as if Gray takes all of this very personally and wants to share it with us. He's made his most complete film yet and has proven himself one of the best filmmakers working today.

Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.