Review by-Jarrett Leahy
In search of a better life in America, Ewa Cybulska and her sister Magda arrive at Ellis Island after setting sail from their native land of Poland. The two however are forced to separate when it is discovered that Magda is suffering from tuberculosis and must be quarantined in the island infirmary. Penniless and alone, Ewa falls prey to Bruno, a predacious, smooth-talking hustler whose salacious, vaudeville style theater show is used as a front for his more nefarious business. Desperate to raise enough money to get Magda off Ellis Island, Ewa becomes Bruno’s prized working girl. A chance meeting with the gregarious magician Orlando offers Ewa the opportunity she so desperately desires to reunite with Magda and escape the squalid existence of living under Bruno’s thumb.
The Immigrant is a beautifully frustrating movie experience. I recently stumbled across an article on Vulture.com about the supposed talents of director James Gray that tried to downplay the fact that “some critics look at Gray’s films and just see prettier versions of movies they’ve seen countless times before.” I found this comment quite amusing for that was precisely how I felt while watching The Immigrant. The film’s striking cinematography had that aged, yellow hued familiarity reminiscent of similar styled period dramas. Right from the opening scene, you are transported to 1920’s, prohibition era New York City. Unfortunately, the authentic look wound up being the film’s only distinct highlight.
There’s little doubt that Joaquin Phoenix is one the most gifted actors of this generation. With The Immigrant being the fourth film he and director James Gray have made together, I had high expectations for his portrayal of pimp Bruno Weiss. Unfortunately, Phoenix’s erratic performance felt disappointingly inferior when compared to his recent astounding efforts in P.T. Anderson’s The Master and Spike Jonze’s Her. Originally scripted as a strictly menacing oppressor, it was reported that Phoenix convinced Gray to allow him to play the character with a softer, more conniving touch. This decision led to an awkwardly manic, mercurial portrayal that frenetically swings from an icy, forbidding bully to an erratically unbalanced brat. Phoenix, however, was not the only gifted actor to offer an unusually sub-par portrayal. Seldom have I been so apathetic to a performance given by the esteemed French Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. Sadly, her portrayal of Ewa slowly slips from understandably frightened to an irritatingly whiny helplessness as she becomes the object of affection of both these obstinate suitors.
Rarely does a film’s discourse ever become such a glaring weakness the way The Immigrant’s wound up being. Shockingly, the script’s middling, inept dialogue managed to make three highly accomplished actors look flounderingly insipid. Some conversations at times felt distractingly substandard with a lack of any real emotional inflection while others were wildly melodramatic to the point of farce. The biggest offender of this was unfortunately Jeremy Renner. Because Gray’s script left him with so little to work with, Renner, a two-time Academy award nominee, was forced to slip into an uninspired, glib delivery that felt as if he were simply going through the motions.
For many months I’ve read news that The Weinstein Company, the U.S. distributors of The Immigrant were having difficulties deciding how best to release this film. There were even rumors they were discussing the possibilities of straight-to-DVD release. This was quite perplexing until I finally experienced the film for myself. Suffering from inferior dialogue, The Immigrant is a rich, elegantly-shot period drama whose legacy will disappointingly be: what could have been.-JL
Edited by-Michelle Zenor