Whenever the topic of greatest working actress pops up Meryl Streep so often finds her name at the top of the list. I do belief Streep can be really good, but I believe a strong case could be made for Marion Cotillard. She is a sensational actress who has proven herself with every role she has tackled. She does it again in James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant”. This period drama was a very personal project for Gray. In an interview with Variety he said “It’s 80% based on the recollections from my grandparents, who came to the United States in 1923.” We see this personal connection running throughout the entire film.
The story starts in 1921 as Ewa (Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The two have left their home country of Poland, which has been ravaged by World War I, in hopes of starting new lives. But during the processing, Magda is quarantined for a suspected lung disease and Ewa is set to be deported due to some questionable immorality that took place on the boat to America. But she catches the eye of a man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who uses his money and influence with a particular guard to free Ewa and save her from deportation.
With no place to go, Ewa accepts Bruno’s offer to work for him in hopes that she can earn enough money to get her sister the medical care she needs. The problem is Bruno runs a ‘gentleman’s show’ and the women he employs are prostitutes. Bruno is charming and persuasive but he also exploits Ewa’s desperation. Ewa is torn between the moral consequences of her actions and her desire to help her sister. Things are complicated even more as Bruno develops an infatuation with her which brings with it jealousy, rage, and even violence.
The movie centers itself on its characters and the different plights of each. Ewa’s circumstances are obviously difficult and the dream of a new life seems practically unattainable. Bruno is often a despicable and detestable man, but at times we see glimpses of compassion. The reasons behind his occasional generosity is a puzzle. Is it due to a genuine love he has for Ewa or is it in the interest of making money? Jeremy Renner plays a struggling magician named Orlando. He is a cousin to Bruno but the two haven’t been close in years. He too is drawn to Ewa and he looks to be a more gentle and loving alternative. But even he shows glimpses of instability making us question who he really is inside.
These characters are magnetic of themselves but they are even richer due to the brilliant cast. Phoenix is always good and while this role doesn’t ask him to dive as deep into the character as some of his previous work, he still has moments where he just takes over a scene. Renner is also very good and he often offers some needed changes in tone which he has no problem handling. But the true standout is Marion Cotillard who once again completely immerses herself in a role. Watching her dissect her character and give her such strong emotional form is akin to watching a fine artist. It’s heavy material and Cotillard expresses it with an emotional precision that we rarely see. She also has a classic-styled radiance that fits this type of movie well and translates beautifully with the camera. Cotillard is brilliant and this is my favorite performance of the year so far.
James Gray’s story is engaging and heartbreaking. His characters are interesting and compelling. But there is also a perfectly realized 1920s New York City that plays a major role in the film. Gray’s vision combined with Darius Khondji’s cinematography creates shades of the city which sometimes look bustling and vibrant but often times looks cold, harsh, and unwelcoming. It’s a portrait that walks hand-in-hand with the characters and their situations.
There are a few things in “The Immigrant” that could be picked apart and a case could be made that it has a few lulls. But for me the selling point here are these characters who I happened to latch onto instantly. It’s also a period film featuring a master class in acting by Marion Cotillard who I believe is one of our finest. She absolutely owns the screen and she leaves nothing behind. That alone makes “The Immigrant” worth seeing.