James Gray has come to Cannes with a gloomy and baffling period drama set in 1920s New York among the huddled masses yearning to be free in the new world. It begins promisingly enough. In the first half-hour, The Immigrant looks like a subdued, complex and intriguing drama with Marion Cotillard holding centre stage as Ewa, the scared young Polish woman, just off the boat, who must do what she can to survive.
But the movie becomes a bizarre tragi-melodrama on a single plaintive note of despair: sluggish, at times entirely implausible, and trapped in its own Stygian gloom as the sad-eyed Ewa gets involved with Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the MC of a saucy burlesque show, and his cousin, the twinkly-eyed stage magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner).
The emotional and moral price of the immigrant experience, circa 1921 in New York, is expressed in quietly wrenching terms in The Immigrant, James Gray’s sensitively observed melodrama about a Polish woman forced to run a gauntlet of degrading experiences to secure a foothold in the New World.
Scratch the good-looking, emotionally charged surface of James Gray’s period take on the love triangle theme he has already explored in Two Lovers and you find a rather stagey melodrama with religious overtones. Set in early 1920s New York, this story of a Polish immigrant who is dragged into a demi-monde of prostitution and burlesque shows by a pimp with a heart of gold moves along briskly enough; but in dramatic terms, we’re on the outside looking in, admiring Marion Cotillard’s full-on performance as Ewa, an innocent besmirched, while never really being engaged by a story so old-school that we half expect to see it narrated via intertitles.
Cementing himself as the great classicist of his generation, James Gray turns back the clock to 1921 in “The Immigrant,” a romantic tale that cuts to the very soul of the American experience. This rich, beautifully rendered film boasts an arrestingly soulful performance from Marion Cotillard as a Polish nurse-turned-prostitute for whom the symbolic promise of Ellis Island presents only hardship. Her travails unfold at a pace that will frustrate today’s attention-deficit audiences.
It’s a beautifully shot film marked by deeply felt performances from its leads, that will play to those attuned to the loveliness of Gray’s minor-key redemption stories, but is unlikely to win new converts among the impatient or those whose expectation of a period drama is something more traditionally epic and grandiose.