The Immigrant: Script Not Worthy of Cast

Directed and co-written by James Gray
Kingsgate Films, 120 minutes, R (mild nudity, language)
* * ½

The Immigrant was released to critical acclaim, including a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes. Audiences, however, have been less than enthralled. Internet audience scores hover in the C-/D+ range ad, for once, the hoi polloi is right. Despite a strong cast and a compelling subject, The Immigrant is as gray and inhospitable as the February waters of New York harbor.

The year is 1921 and Polish Cybulska sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) are in line at Ellis Island, hoping to be admitted to the United States. The year is crucial–World War One is just over, a conflict in which Poland was scorched and Cossacks killed Ewa and Magda’s parents, and it's three years before the harsh National Origins Act would slam the door on most Polish immigrants. Nonetheless, the Cybulskas are bucking long odds–Ewa because she caused an in-transit disturbance and is suspected of low morals, and Magda because of a nasty cough. When their aunt fails to appear to claim them, Magda is spirited away to a TB ward and Ewa marked for deportation as “likely to become a public charge.” At the last moment, though, a benefactor appears in the person of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who bribes an immigration official and takes Ewa across to New York, feeds her, and gives her a room in which to stay.

Bruno is more moved by Ewa’s luminous face and comely features than by Christian charity. As it happens, he’s the impresario of an elderly madam’s seedy burlesque house, a front for a brothel operating through payoffs to local cops and the pretense of being down-market legit in the waning days of vaudeville. Bruno is taken with Ewa, but it’s clear what she must do to raise the cash to bribe Ellis Island officials and secure her sister’s release. That’s the set up and rest is aimed at resolving some rather obvious dilemmas that emerge: Why did Ewa’s relatives fail to show? Which will fill faster, Bruno’s heart or purse? Will Ewa chuck Bruno in favor of his smooth-talking magician/performer cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner)? Is Magda still on Ellis Island? Is she even alive? Will the soiled Ewa regain her Catholic virtue?

Cotillard and Phoenix are both superb (even when the later falls prey to his tendency to channel Brando is his Grand Mumbler period), but they can’t rescue a limp script that meanders from predictable to absurd. In the latter category place Emil. Jeremy Renner is a fine actor, but his role in The Immigrant is more akin to a cartoon than a dramatic foil. Maybe it’s the gloomy tenements, basement clubs, dim oyster houses, and light-deprived winter skies, but the movie both looks dreary and plays that way. Buildups become aimless meanders through the gloaming, and what should be big climaxes induce all the passion of a shoulder shrug. Nor is it possible to care deeply about characters about whom we know (or ever come to know) so little.  The frisson between Cotillard and Phoenix simply isn’t enough to redeem a script that never should have gotten off the island.  Rob Weir

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