An old-fashioned, almost silent movie melodrama permeates James Gray’s period parable, “The Immigrant.” The subdued palette is grays and blacks, yellows and browns dominating, with an occasional glimpse of dusty, damask color. The characters look as if they’d be more comfortable with intertitles than spoken dialogue. And the faces — Marion Cotillard as Ewa, the beleaguered Polish immigrant of the title, holds a close-up as well as Lillian Gish or Louise Brooks.
The film evokes the movies made around the time it takes place — 1921 — and Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji deserve credit for re-creating that delicate magic. But more than nine decades of movie and real life history have intervened in the meantime, and while Gray fumbles somewhat in integrating those developments into a simple tale that would have been a natural for D.W. Griffith, he nearly achieves a successful fusion.
Still traumatized by the horrors of World War I, Ewa and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island full of faith in the American Dream. But Magda has that tell-tale cough that throughout movie history has signified no good. She’s pulled out of line and put into an isolation ward in the island infirmary. Disconsolate, Ewa soon discovers that her situation is not so hot, either. The aunt and uncle who were supposed to meet the sisters are no-shows, and the address they’d been given is nonexistent. So Ewa finds herself in line to be deported.
Enter Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who seems to have some pull with the authorities. He sympathizes with Ewa’s plight and offers her help and shelter. But in his greasy black suit and derby, he doesn’t seem like a knight in shining armor (has Phoenix ever?). No wonder Ewa sleeps that first night at Bruno’s tenement apartment with an ice pick under her pillow.
Though Ewa is fresh off the boat, she’s no dummy. As a flashback to a marauding Cossack back in Poland suggests, she has no illusions about the world and is no pushover. Nor is Bruno a pure mustache-twirling villain (his apparent good-guy cousin, played by Jeremy Renner, is the one with the mustache). Bruno’s a pimp, and a moody one. As a girl in his stable of artistes/hookers tells Ewa, “He sometimes flies off the handle.” Though not as freaky as Phoenix’s character in “The Master,” Bruno has mixed feelings about Ewa that make him lose his bearings.
Gray occasionally loses his bearings a bit, too. The film meanders between melodrama and a psychodrama about survival, exploitation, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s Scorsese territory, and though the re-creation of old New York shimmers with squalid nostalgia, at times it seems like it has strayed into “The Godfather” or “Once Upon a Time in America.”
But certain moments bring back the focus, as when Caruso (Joseph Calleja) sings a Puccini aria in a charity concert for the Ellis Island huddled masses, or when Ewa, radiantly costumed as a sexy Miss Liberty, endures the catcalls of her audience. It’s a rough transition, but you suspect that she has the resilience and spirit to finally fit in. Just as Gray, despite the rough edges, manages to meld decades of melodrama into a film that is at once simple and complex, morally black-and-white and psychologically ambiguous.