It is 1921 on Ellis Island. Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), arriving by ship from Poland, are huddled in line awaiting customs. Magda is tubercular and fears, rightly, that she will be quarantined. Ewa, suddenly separated from her sister, is herself turned away by the authorities – her relatives were no-shows and her shipboard reputation, which she steadfastly denies, officially stamps her a woman of “low morals.”
James Gray’s uneven, often extraordinary “The Immigrant,” which he co-wrote with the late Richard Menello, is about how Ewa survives in this brave (and not so brave) new world. Rescued at Ellis Island by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a burlesque show impresario, she boards at his apartment on the Lower East Side and joins the troupe. The character she plays is Lady Liberty. The irony is not lost on her.
Very little is lost on Ewa. She has the survival instincts of a cornered animal. She may look like a luminous maiden from a silent movie, but she sleeps with a knife under her pillow. What gives her character its force is the chasm between her apparent purity and the hard-edged practicalities of her life. Ewa has one goal: to rescue her sister. To do this, she will do anything. When Bruno pimps her, she is aghast at first but soon relents. Her sense of self is cast-iron. “I am not nothing,” she declares, and she means it.
Gray and his cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Happy Massee have done a magnificent job of re-creating this Lower East Side melting pot – the best I’ve seen since the De Niro flashbacks in “The Godfather II.” Gray doesn’t overdo the period detailing; he shows us just enough to allow us to fill in the scene with our own imaginations.
Gray, in any case, is not interested in making a historical epic. His ambitions are much more insular: He wants to show how these people contrive to survive, and he doesn’t get all judgmental about how they accomplish this. This is certainly true in how he depicts Ewa, but it’s equally true for Bruno, who starts out exploiting Ewa but then, despite himself, ends up falling for her. Bruno has a moment early on when, after being on his best gentlemanly behavior with Ewa, he suddenly lashes out at her when she rejects his advances. It’s a horrifying scene because, up until this point, we (and Ewa) hadn’t spotted this savagery in him. It is only much later that we realize his fury was not really a pimp’s fury, but a lover’s. Ewa represents a transcendence he reveres even as he is compelled to ravage her.
Bruno’s alter ego is his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), a traveling magician who goes by the stage name Orlando. He is not what he at first seems either. This rollicky, carefree spirit also falls for Ewa, which places him in direct romantic opposition, apparently not for the first time, with Bruno. Orlando knows how to speak to Ewa. He tells her “You got a right to be happy,” and, like Bruno, he plots to release Magda from the Ellis Island infirmary. But Orlando the low-rent magician is a species of con artist, and his brutalities, which, like Bruno’s, are far more emotional than physical, are startling.
Ewa has a scene in which she confesses to a priest her transgressions, and it’s the high point of Cotillard’s performance. We can see how this woman is both debased and fortified by what she must do to survive and reclaim her sister. What makes the scene especially powerful, almost operatic, is that Bruno, tracking her down in church, is listening outside the confessional. He is agonizing not only because he fears Ewa may implicate him but also because he can’t bear to hear her sorrows, for which, in some measure, he holds himself responsible.
Gray doesn’t do much with the fact that Ewa is Roman Catholic and Bruno is Jewish. He also has a predilection for exaggerated plotting that may be a nod to the gaslight melodramas of that era but too often comes across as negligent storytelling. Gray (“The Yards,” “Little Odessa,” “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers”) has it all – a marvelous visual facility, a strong feeling for the emotional root of a story, a way with actors (all the performers here, right down to the bit players, are standouts) – but he has yet to make a truly first-rate movie.
“The Immigrant” is reaching for the same thing that Fellini achieved in “La Strada” – the state of grace that arises between people who at first would seem to have nothing in common but desolation. That he doesn’t quite get there is no reason to discount all that he does provide. And his final shot, which frames the futures of Bruno and Ewa in a single image, is masterly. It ties everything up even as we realize that these lives cannot be tied up. Grade: B+ (Rated R for sexual content, nudity, and some language.)