Monday, June 02, 2014
The Immigrant (2013 film)
Directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello, The Immigrant is the story of a Polish woman who travels to America with her sister as she works as a prostitute to free her quarantined sister while falling in love with a magician. Set in 1921, the film is an exploration into the world of Europeans coming to America as they try to capture that idea of the American dream. Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Angela Sarafyan, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Yelena Solovey. The Immigrant is an evocative yet powerful film from James Gray.
The idea of going to America from Europe definitely conjures up the idea of the American dream where one can go from a foreign country often troubled by war and poverty as going to America is a place to start over and succeed there. What this film does is play into that myth as a young woman from Poland arrives to Ellis Island with her sister who is ill with tuberculosis as Ewa (Marion Cotillard) endures some of the most harshest circumstances as well as the danger of being sent back to Poland until she gets help from a man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who gives her a place to live but with certain conditions as she reluctantly becomes a prostitute. Upon meeting Bruno’s magician cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), she finds hope in Emil but endure Bruno’s jealousy as she tries to save enough money to help her quarantined sister.
The film’s screenplay by James Gray and Ric Menello doesn’t just explore the myth of the American dream but also what immigrants have to endure upon their arrival into America as it is set a few years after World War I. Ewa arrives with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) as Ewa has been reported to be someone with low morals which prevents her from being part of the country immediately. Though she tries to get help from relatives, she is shunned over accusations of being a whore as she had no choice but to work under Bruno as a theater dancer and as a prostitute which has questioning about the decisions she’s making. At the same time, she knows she has to do something not just to survive but also to help out Magda who is unable to get into the country because of her illness as she’s stuck at Ellis Island.
While the character of Bruno isn’t a totally despicable person, he is someone who is willing to use Ewa for money as he is also the only person that can really help Ewa to get Magda out of Ellis Island. Ewa reluctantly trusts him yet she couldn’t believe the kind of things he makes her do as he would also threaten her. Upon meeting Emil during a show in Ellis Island and learning that he’s Bruno’s cousin, a complicated love triangle emerges as Ewa falls for the much kinder Emil who offers a chance to live a good life as well as getting her sister out as well. This would cause tension between Emil and Bruno while Ewa also has to endure prejudice and the other women working for Bruno who despises Ewa because of her morals. Through all the tribulations that Ewa goes through, she tries to appeal to God about what to do and wonder if she is doing anything right.
Gray’s direction definitely recalls a lot of the films made during the 1970s about the world of immigrants yet he brings in something that also feels timeless in the way he re-creates early 20th Century New York City. It’s a world that is starting to form its identity as well as be this strange mix of Europeans roaming around the country with actual New Yorkers. There’s a dreamlike quality to the look of the film with its sepia-drenched cinematography as well as Gray’s great attention to detail from the way the city looked and how he would shoot scenes such as some through a window or through a glass door. The use of the medium shots and close-ups add to Gray’s unique vision as well as use some wide shots to play into the look of the city.
Some of the moments in the film are very intimate such as the way Bruno instructs Ewa into becoming a reluctant prostitute where Gray keeps the camera close but not too close. The scenes involving Emil are quite lively as it has that element of mystique but also adds an ambiguity to what Emil is in comparison to Bruno as they sort of represent this duality of morality for Ewa. Especially in the third act where Ewa deals with own crisis in faith as some troubling actions would force Ewa to reach out towards those who would help her. This would play into Ewa not only reveal all of the trials and tribulations she had faced but also realize that being in America is just as complicated as anywhere else. Overall, Gray crafts a very engrossing yet intoxicating film about an immigrant arriving into America and discover that the American Dream is really a myth.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji does incredible work with the film‘s dream-like and enchanting cinematography that is awash with sepia-drenched images for much of the film‘s interiors including a few dashes of color in some scenes such as the church while the usage of blue for the exterior Ellis Island scenes are also beautiful as it‘s one of the film‘s major highlights. Editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter do excellent work with the editing as it‘s mostly straightforward yet does have some elements of style as the cutting has this seamless feel to the way the transitions play out as well as some of the drama. Production designer Happy Massee, with set decorator David Schlesinger and art director Pete Zumba does brilliant work with the look of early 1920s New York City in its immigrant-based sections along with the look of the park bridges to play into a world that is starting to define itself.
Costume designer Patricia Norris does amazing work with the period costumes from the ordinary clothes that Ewa wears upon her arrival to the stylish clothes she and the other women wear for the stage performances and as prostitutes. Key makeup artist Rachel Geary does nice work with some of the makeup such as the makeup the women have to wear for the stage performances. Visual effects supervisors Eran Dinour and Dottie Starling do terrific work with some of the visual effects where it‘s mostly minimal such as the look of 1921 New York City from afar as well as some of the set dressing for some of the locations. Sound designer Robert Hein does superb work with the sound from the way some of the theater performances sound to the more intimate moments in the Ellis Island building and in some of the locations in the city. The film’s music by Chris Spelman is wonderful for its somber orchestral music to play with the drama while music supervisor Dana Sano creates a music soundtrack that mixes the jazz music of the times with some opera music by Giuseppe Verdi and a classical piece by John Tavener.
The casting by Douglas Aibel is fantastic as it features some notable small roles from Patrick Husted as a priest, Antoni Corone as the sympathetic customs officer Thomas McNally, Ilia Volok as Ewa and Magda’s uncle who feels shamed by Ewa, Maja Wampuszyc as Ewa and Magda’s more sympathetic aunt, and Yelena Solovey as the theater manager Rosie who invited Emil to come back to the stage. Dagmara Dominczyk is wonderful as one of Bruno’s hookers in Belva who dislikes Ewa as she would play a key role in the film’s third act. Angela Sarafyan is terrific as Ewa’s sister Magda as it’s a small yet crucial role as a young woman who becomes ill as she would be quarantined due to her illness.
Jeremy Renner is great as Emil as this magician who offers Ewa any help that she needs as he also falls for her as Renner brings a lot of charm and sensitivity to his performance while also proving to be tough. Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as Bruno as this man who has all of the connections to get women to work for him and make money while he also has a dark obsession towards Ewa which would finally cloud his own judgment as he tries to deal with his own jealousy towards Emil. Finally, there’s Marion Cotillard in a phenomenal performance as Ewa as this woman struggling to survive in a new, cruel environment as she endures degradation and prejudice while trying to find good in the world as well as maintain her faith as it’s Cotillard at her best.
The Immigrant is an incredible film from James Gray. Thanks to the leading performances of Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner as well as Darius Khondji’s dazzling cinematography. The film is clearly a captivating story about the struggles that immigrants go through upon their arrival while dealing with the false myth of the American Dream. In the end, The Immigrant is a tremendous film from James Gray.
James Gray Films: Little Odessa - The Yards - We Own the Night - Two Lovers - (The Lost City of Z) - (Ad Astra) - (The Auteurs #67: James Gray)
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