Just under a year ago, James Gray’s nostalgic film “The Immigrant” premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Up for the Palme d’Or, it didn’t win. No awards there, or from the two other fests (including New York) in which it was in competition. In fact, Gray has come up empty four times with his films at Cannes. Now, his new feature having come ashore here in America, you can find out why at a local theatre playing it, next to the numerous screens playing the latest X-Men sequel or other pulp fare. While it has not really landed here with a thud, there aren’t really any fireworks exploding over New York harbor to celebrate its arrival. Gray’s classical approach to filmmaking will probably doom his work to second-tier success.
For the genealogist in me (and the critic), I wanted so much to really love “The Immigrant,” a period immigration drama with a fine, nuanced performance by the incredible French, Oscar-winning (“La Vie en Rose“) actress Marion Cotillard, the film’s lovely, sepia-toned Lower East Side tenement look—thanks to fine earth-tone lensing by Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” “Amour,” “Midnight in Paris,” “To Rome With Love,” and others)—and its subtle score. In the end, any melodramatic tension it showcases about society’s haves and have-nots evaporates under a the weight of an underdeveloped story and its unexciting direction. Gray, best known for his 2008 work “Two Lovers,” reunites with his regular star Joaquin Phoenix (also having worked together on “We Own the Night” and “The Yards”), as well as with his co-writer, the late Richard Menello, composer Christopher Spelman, and production designer Happy Massee. His inspiration is an old family photograph of his Russian Jewish grandfather, who travelled to America in 1923. His decision to make his protagonist female came from a viewing of Guicomo Puccini’s opera “Il Trittico.”
Cotillard portrays Ewa Cybulski, an ethereal Polish Catholic nurse from Silesia (southwestern Poland) who arrives with a sister at Ellis Island (where some of the film was actually shot) in January 1921. The authorities, either by negligence or corruption, separate the family with one quarantined (Magda,played by Angela Arafyan, suffering from tuberculosis) and the other threatened with deportation for “low morals,” so tagged due to events that occurred while the women traversed the Atlantic Ocean.
The American dream quickly becomes a nightmare as the frantic Ewa, whose English (she used to work for an English diplomat) alone will not save her from the an ever-spiraling-downward situation. The solution arrives under the bowler hat of a man from the Travelers Aid Society, represented by Bruno Weiss (Phoenix). His bribe allows the demure, shy, and afraid Ewa to jump out of the Exclusion Line frying pan and into the New York City fire as the ward of Weiss, a temperamental theatrical impresario running a burlesque, Bohemian production know as the “Bandit’s Roost,” catering to drunken, loutish men. He’s an amateur pimp with a harem of various societal castaways. Ewa is his latest proverbial fish out of water, although the prettiest of the bunch. While a quick, unobtrusive study, there are some small telling moments that force her to become a quick learner. She may not know that a banana has to be peeled the first time she’s handed one, you doubt she’ll make the same mistake twice.
Phoenix infuses his character with a hair-trigger of brutish violence, and while not particularly evil, if he perceives someone as disobedient or untrustworthy, beware his fisticuffs, or the small, hidden knife he carries. Stir in Jeremy Renner as Emil (stage name: Orlando the Magician), who turns out to be a cousin of Bruno. Despite their having shared a childhood together, the men seem to have different blood lines, and are already at odds with each other (Orlando is a reformed gambler and drinker) when they are shown together in the same scene. Eventually they offer up mutually thuggish behavior, in their own ways, over Ewa. A smaller story centers around Ewa’s aunt Edyta (Maja Wampusyc) and her fiercely suspicious husband (Ilia Volok), which forces the newly arrived girl back on to the road to deportation, only to be rescued anew after a second stint at Ellis Island.
The gloom of the story line is elevated modestly by the promise of a new life in California, but the expertly-crafted, marvelous look of “The Immigrant” can’t cover up the underwhelming story. The huddled masses will probably be waiting for this one’s arrival in the land of video on demand.