It might be worth noting that the original Immigrant, or the film I think of when I hear that title, is one of the exceptional Charlie Chaplin shorts in which his tramp character doesn't end up on the road alone. Envisioning himself as an immigrant -- he wasn't quite one in real life -- rather than a tramp, Chaplin seemed to recognize that these newcomers needed each other, that rugged or romantic individualism wasn't an option for most of them. That insight informs James Gray's film, though this new variation on the theme, while set in Chaplin's time, is less Chaplinesque than Dreiserian, bordering on Dostoevskian. It's as much an homage to the silent era as the neo-silents we've seen lately, but the main idea here is to return to the themes and archetypes of that time with the frankness of modern cinema. In other words, we see tits and characters say "fuck," but in some ways it's a very old-fashioned melodrama, down to a certain pathos of renunciation at the end. At the same time, Gray and co-writer Nick Menello have subtler points to make, though not all of them are very subtly made.
It's not dramatic enough for a Frenchwoman to come to America in 1921 so Marion Cotillard plays a Polish woman. Ewa and her sister Magda are refugees from their country's war with the young Soviet Union who have made their way to Ellis Island with little means of support. The sisters are separated when Magda shows signs of tuberculosis, while Ewa seems stranded when her aunt and uncle fail to show up to collect her as promised. Things seem hopeless until her relative fluency in English -- she had been a nurse for an English diplomat at home -- catches the attention of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who appears to be some sort of fixer. He arranges to get Ewa off the island and settled in an already-occupied apartment. Shortly afterward, he finds her work. Bruno is a sort of pimpresario; he acts as MC in a small-time theater, introducing a parade of beauties who are, in fact, his whores. He's slow to integrate Ewa fully into the act -- as Miss Liberty she doesn't have to go topless like the other girls -- but there's no other way for her to raise the money to get Magda off Ellis. In a painfully awkward scene filmed with an old-fashioned reticence, our absinthe-addled heroine must deflower a reluctant young man who father drags him to the theater to prove his manhood. She's decided she must do whatever's necessary to get money, but at the same time she learns gradually how she was set up for her new role, how Bruno has connived from the beginning to make her his whore, if not more than that.
Enter Bruno's brother Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka Orlando the Magician. First introduced dazzling an Ellis Island audience with a levitation trick, Emil seems most talented at provoking Bruno's jealousy. Bringing his act to Bruno's theater, he recruits Ewa to take part in a disastrous mind-reading act, the heckling of which by an audience contemptuous toward Miss Liberty only compounds Bruno's rage. Sibling rivalry inspires Emil to talk of taking Ewa away to California with him, while Bruno warns that Emil never follows through on his big plans. It all ends badly when Bruno, fearing that Emil intends to kill him with his own gun, but not knowing that Emil had emptied it of bullets, stabs his brother to death. Instead of Bruno, Ewa becomes the target of a police manhunt when another member of Bruno's troupe, fearful for her own future in his absence, denounces Ewa as Emil's killer. Now it's up to Bruno to do the right thing to really rescue Ewa (and Magda) this time, and for both Bruno and Ewa to come to terms with their complicated relationship.
You could very well see such a story on the Pre-Code Parade, or told without sound, and Gray, cinematographer Darius Khondji and composer Chris Spelman invest the picture with an appropriate romantic lushness regardless of their tawdry material. Gray has an interesting point to make about the interrelation of opportunity and exploitation in the immigrant experience. Many were taken advantage of, but might never have had a chance otherwise. Ewa's is an extreme case that nevertheless rings true. It gets trickier when the filmmakers try to dramatize the intimate ambivalence of exploitation through Bruno's story. He veers from self-delusion, to the extent that he sees himself as a genuine entertainer, and self-loathing over what he does to Ewa, if not to all the women before her. If Ewa is the Dreiserian figure, Bruno is the one out of Dostoevsky, and that would seem to make Joaquin Phoenix ideal for the part. Something isn't quite right, however, and there's something less right about Jeremy Renner as Emil. It isn't that they don't sound convincing as 1920s entertainers, since both characters are (despite Emil's first impression) bad entertainers. Neither actor never quite becomes of the characters' time -- perhaps their neuroses are too blatant on the surface where actors of the actual time would never show them -- while Cotillard, distanced by her foreignness in the first place, is effortlessly convincing. Even in her case, however, some moments don't ring true. It's hard to believe that the father and son would pick the obviously strung-out Ewa as the one to initiate the son sexually. It's just as odd to hear Renner described as "the pretty boy" relative to Phoenix, who despite his scar has it all over Renner in terms of charisma. Renner comes off least well -- don't hold your breath waiting for a Hawkeye movie from this born character actor -- not least because he's saddled with blatantly thematic dialogue about opportunity and the American dream; the fact that it's supposed to ring hollow doesn't help the actor much. Gray's on safer ground when he makes his story less About America -- not even Cotillard's Miss Liberty costume is as heavyhanded as Renner's dialogue -- than about the complications of exploitation and opportunity and the convergence of guilt, hate and love that transcend the American experience.
Once Renner is offscreen the film recovers rapidly, its real focus having always been on the Cotillard-Phoenix relationship. The two stars really elevate their game in the last half-hour, especially in the pivotal moment when, without words, Phoenix must sell how moved he is while eavesdropping on Cotillard's confession in a cathedral, when he learns how guilty she feels, despite all he's done to her, for causing him suffering. His ultimate confession to her of how completely he had deceived and exploited her is yet another powerhouse moment from the hottest actor in America right now, and playing off him Cotillard, in my view, finally lives up in an American film to the expectations her early Oscar created. Despite my criticisms, I think Gray and Menello deserve a ton of credit for their ambition, while Khonji and Spelman should share credit for making The Immigrant a rich viewing experience. If their story doesn't succeed fully on the level of their aspirations, they still do justice to the era and the cinematic tradition they strove to evoke.