The Immigrant Review: Yearning to Breathe Free
Although we never see the Statue of Liberty in The Immigrant, the tired and poor Ewa (Marion Cotillard) does dress up as Lady Liberty for her part in a cheap burlesque show. Emma Lazarus’ sonnet adorned on the actual Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – is felt on the corner of every frame of The Immigrant. It’s in the corner because, like Ewa, it’s been shoved aside.
Ewa, a Polish immigrant whose parents were beheaded by the Russians, made it to Ellis Island with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). It’s 1923. Magda has a cough and heavy eyes. On sight the immigrant officials deny her and send her to an infirmary for six months. Concerning Ewa, well, there was a nasty rumor about an act on the boat, so she’s deemed morally unfit to enter the US. On separate occasions Ewa has hearings on whether she should be permitted to go to the mainland. An official, who pities her, advises her to look nice: the judge likes it when someone looks nice. Ewa pricks her finger and rubs blood on her lips to make them appear more luscious.
What Ewa wears throughout The Immigrant – whether it’s blood on her lips, a Lady Liberty costume, or an exotic headband for her male customers – is a masterful storytelling stroke from director James Gray. Her own look is indeed a raggy, huddled mass. She has to be reshaped. Ellis Island has processed too many huddled masses. She is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) insofar as he does get her into New York City and give her a cot. But she is poor and her family will not accept her because of the Ellis Island judge’s ruling: morally unfit. So Bruno folds her into his variety show and pimps her on the side.
Bruno’s romantic interest in Ewa eventually loses him the roof of his theatre sideshow after he attacks his magician cousin (Jeremy Renner) for bringing her out on stage, only to be heckled by the randy audience. Bruno then moves his operation to a bridge underpass, where he continues to be a showman, and elaborately trots out his harem that he’s labeled “The Daughters of the City’s Richest Men”. These scenes are a magnificent construct – dressing up women as sex objects who share the names of men who succeeded in that Horatio Alger-strap-on-your-bootstraps promise of the American Dream – so that less lucky men might actually get to screw the American Dream. The dream that they’ve allowed to them screw over.
That’s not to say that The Immigrant is a dreary experience. Far from it. It's marvelous. Gray has meticulously crafted a handsome, very rewarding and rare dramatization of something that, although distant, should remain familiar to all of us.
There’s a sense of wonder in Renner’s magic performances, and indeed Renner’s performance, too. His showmanship seems more of our century; although, if there is a miscalculation in The Immigrant it might be the loveless love triangle that forms after his introduction.
To further balance the misfortune, Gray’s employed a magnificent golden hue that cinematographer Darius Khondji imbues on many frames. This is not a film that has given up on the American Dream, this is a film that understands it’s difficult. It’s possible, but it’s difficult. And a statement like “I am not nothing” goes a long way.
This is Gray’s first period piece that’s stuck in the same period for its entire runtime. And it suits him very well. His films have always been very deliberate in pace. For new Americans, trying to acclimate and focusing solely on human interactions in their new landscape, this pace works perfectly. That’s the story of an immigrant. Sure, plot points enter, but mostly it’s desperate people making desperate choices. And if you don’t spend time with those choices, it’s a disservice to an audience.
Gray is also not cynical. He might have men bed their fantasy of the American Dream, but he does not close his storybook on his characters’ own dreams. There’s a gorgeous shot, lovingly rendered, that drives home the idea that the American Dream will always be a possibility if you keep moving.
It also helps that Cotillard and Phoenix are remarkable. And remarkably different.
Gray focuses on Cotillard’s face with silent-film tenderness. She is stiff and unapproachable for most of The Immigrant, until she forgives herself for surviving; for being tired, weak, poor and huddled. Her posture, eyes, face and spirit soften. She might just have a chance for upward mobility.
Phoenix, at first, almost feels like a re-hash of his lusty Commodus in Gladiator. His desire for Ewa never feels full. Once he performs his intro for his ribald customers we see that he too has adopted multiple personalities to survive in this new world. His performance becomes a form of roulette and Phoenix remarkably keeps his intentions murky beyond even the final frame. He vacillates between incredibly creepy, to warm, to vintage Brando intense.
Ewa does not believe that she is nothing. In a surprising, rewarding counter play, it feels that Phoenix knew Bruno was nothing all along. He trots out the costumes. He’s sold a bunch of lies.
Not Lady Liberty. She just said she’ll keep the light on.