There’s a moment about an hour into James Gray‘s The Immigrant where it can decide to do something different or once again repeat the same scenario it has already beaten into our head time and again. In that moment, Marion Cotillard playing Ewa (pronounced Eva), a Polish immigrant in 1921 who’s been prostituting herself to raise money to get her sick sister out of the immigration infirmary, responds to the opportunity to travel to California and make some money, “I can’t, I have to stay for my sister.” I could have thrown something at the screen I was so infuriated. From that moment on the film was, more or less, dead to me.
Why such an aggressive response? A couple reasons. First, Cotillard’s performance is overly robotic and I felt nothing for her character. Every sentence seems to take eons to come out of her mouth and, as far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with the fact English is her character’s second language. I’m not sure there is a single thing she says that doesn’t have at least one pause mid-sentence and if she isn’t pausing for “dramatic effect” between one period to the next capital I guess it doesn’t mean she’s acting. Additionally, her character is so redundant, whiny and meek I can only tolerate so much boo-hoo-hooing from someone who willingly puts themselves in harm’s way.
It didn’t have to be this way. Shortly before the scene I describe above Ewa says, “I am not nothing” as she sits among fellow immigrants who are likely to be deported. It’s a moment where you believe her character may have some measure of strength and not merely play the victim for the film’s entirety. No such luck.
Upon arrival at Ellis Island, Ewa is immediately separated from her sister, ignored by her uncle and placed into a holding pattern where she will likely be deported back to Poland. Of course, all of this is part of a plot narrated by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a vulturous pimp who runs a small-time theatre show in town where he entertains an audience and whores out his “doves”. Bruno seizes on Ewa, taking her into his fold, promising to help her reunite with her sister, gives her lodging, a job, etc.
In some ways Bruno’s intentions are honest and he clearly has a “thing” for Ewa, but that doesn’t stop him from treating her like a prostitute. Ewa also isn’t oblivious to the fact Bruno is using her and while she shows moments of strength and courage, she continually falls back into Bruno’s troupe and accepts the fact she will have to prostitute herself all while playing the “woe is me” card. “I need to help my sister,” “I have to go to church,” blah, blah, blah. None of it feels real as much as it feels made-up, despite impressive production design, costuming and the warm amber hues of Darius Khondji‘s lighting.
Things aim to improve upon the arrival of Jeremy Renner‘s magician character Orlando, cousin to Bruno and obvious object of jealousy. Orlando is caught by Ewa’s beauty during a Port Authority show where Ewa is, once again, being held and will likely be deported before Bruno, once again, intervenes.
Orlando finds his way to Bruno’s theatre show where he performed at one time and has been hired on again despite Bruno’s protests. Things escalate, there’s an argument, people chase one another, Bruno and his “doves” are sent packing and onward we go.
The second half of the film only proves worse than the first. Dialogue is so obvious it hurts, “Hey Ewa… Would you like to go West with me? You could be my assistant.” All said without an ounce of inflection or feeling, not that Gray’s script is necessarily giving them Shakespeare to recite. I never got the impression the actors had much, if any, interest in the feature outside of Phoenix who ranges from very good to over-the-top mimicry.
In the film’s final moments you’re likely to see several critics praising Phoenix’s performance. If there was ever a bid for an Oscar nomination on screen this year, this is the scene. Phoenix seems to be doing his best Marlon Brando imitation and while it may move others it felt nothing but false to me. I never fell for his character’s journey to become a better person and contributing to the fabricated nature of the entire scene, Cotillard’s tears, fist-pounding and straight-forward dialogue lacked any measure of believability.
I can point to moments where this film has opportunities to get things right, but each time it fails and only compounds each mundane decision by repeating itself until all that’s left is to walk out.