Signaling the nature of its story from the very first frame, James Gray’s “The Immigrant” shows the Statue of Liberty with its back turned to us, blind to the hardships its title character will suffer in her attempt to accept that famous “huddled masses” invitation.
Lady Liberty will appear later in perverted form, the embodiment of what this young Polish woman must do to survive in a land bent on exploiting her. But even when using symbols that are as obvious as those found in the century-old melodramas his characters would have consumed, Gray directs this handsome and evocative film with emotional restraint, making its archetypal title character a living individual whose moral journey is never simple.
Marion Cotillard plays that woman, Ewa, who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with her tubercular sister, Magda. Officials quarantine Magda, as the sisters feared, but they deny entry to Ewa as well; someone, it appears, has spread rumors about her behavior on the long voyage from Europe. She “may be a woman of low morals,” a clerk coldly says, and in any event, the aunt and uncle who had promised to host her aren’t here, and “we do not allow unescorted women into this country.”
Frightened and confused, Ewa finds help from a mysterious, well-dressed stranger. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) is the kind of man who knows how to circumvent bureaucracy; he gets her off the island and to the Lower East Side, where he seems to be a prince of the tenements. The emcee at a raucous little place called the Bandits’ Roost, he works with vaudevillians and a flock of female entertainers he calls “my doves.” He welcomes Ewa with a generosity that arouses suspicions (for both viewers and the heroine) despite his obvious sincerity.
Bruno is a pimp. And although he had different things in mind for Ewa, he is soon showing her that selling herself is the only way she’ll earn enough money to bribe guards and get Magda out of quarantine. Phoenix makes this reluctant seducer a fascinatingly complex character, genuinely confused about the entwinement of generosity and possessiveness, who becomes violently unpredictable when another man enters the picture. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a Houdini-like illusionist, woos Ewa in a straightforward way Bruno can’t, fueling a rivalry that disrupts the entire Bandits’ Roost environment.
The movie’s re-creation of 1921 New York feels lived-in, its saloons and street life as period-specific as, say, those in “Once Upon a Time in America,” without straining to impress us with their authenticity. Cotillard’s performance is similarly unshowy: Bottled-up Ewa doesn’t advertise her desperation or weep over necessary sins; she does what her situation requires. Cotillard’s eyes reveal both hardness and fear. Only toward the end does her perspective widen, allowing the character to defend her own behavior to outsiders in a position to judge.
“I am learning the power of forgiveness,” she tells one, perhaps not realizing how broadly that power applies. So many players in this tale require mercy, from themselves and each other. Whether the god Ewa prays to sees anything to forgive is another matter.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
★ ★ ★ ½
R. At AFI Silver Theatre, the Avalon and Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains sexual content, nudity and some strong language. 120 minutes.