Director: James Gray
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Watch The Immigrant online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / BFI Player
Sometimes, it takes years for a movie to arrive on British shores. Sometimes, it never happens at all. In the case of Snowpiercer, finally steaming onto streaming platforms in 2018, it was a perplexing, frustrating delay for a juggernaut of a masterpiece. In the case of The Immigrant, James Gray’s 2013 Cannes-contending drama, it’s a more understandable hold-up for an uneven affair.
The drama stars Marion Cotillard as Ewa, who, like the film itself on VOD, quietly washes up on the shore of a foreign country. Coming to America with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), she finds herself suddenly isolated – Magda is quarantined, on the basis of a small cough that might indicate infection. Just as things look desperate, Ewa is taken under the wing of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the impresario of a New York bar. He asks her to work for him, in exchange for shelter and comforts.
If the alarm bells don’t start ringing immediately, they soon do, as Bruno slowly, bit by bit, nudges Ewa into being a sex worker. Because Bruno, it turns out, also pimps the female dancers at his seedy revue out to punters on a regular basis – and, at one point, even hawks them under a bridge, pretending they’re faded beauties exiled from wealthy, exotic or famous families.
It’s a situation that’s rich with political themes, but The Immigrant surprisingly chooses to skate over the surface of such issues, instead playings things as a straight love triangle. The third corner comes courtesy of Jeremy Renner as Orlando, a magician who falls for Ewa the second he meets her – just as he’s levitating in front of a crowd and talking of the power that belief can have. Not just in miracles, but in the American Dream itself – what else but faith in the impossible dream brought these migrants to the USA’s shores in the first place? Minutes later, Ewa is dressed up as Lady Liberty to give a clamouring crowd a titillating welcome, but all of these moments feel superficial and on-the-nose, only highlighting the lack of subtext to go with the symbolism.
That’s perhaps most notable of all in the character of Ewa, which doesn’t get the chance to grow or evolve beyond her unwavering commitment to raising money to free her sister. Marion Cotillard puts in a marvellous performance, mining her waif for every inch of wide-eyed idealism and crushing claustrophobia, but without the material to go further than that, Gray’s film winds up unfortunately cold at times. Fortunately, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner get more to do, as their rivals for Ewa’s affection have their own flawed masculinity to bring them down. Both are equally impressive, with Renner essaying a suave antihero opposite Phoenix’s downbeat, vulnerable, ultimately tragic villain.
Gray, though, is the real star of the show, and his direction emerges as the main reason to watch. He’s a fantastic visual storyteller, and he brings to life the 1920s period with an astonishingly authentic sense of atmosphere – everything is at once lived-in and believable, to the point where the film has practically been stained with a teabag and burnt at the edges. The screen is vibrantly old and the pacing deliberately slow, recalling classic Hollywood with an earnestness that’s at once old-fashioned and timeless. The resulting portrait of a broken American Dream may not always resonate as much as you’d like, but this canvas drips with compelling detail.