In the cacophony of high-concept movies and TV, there’s something to be said for the spare beauty of old-fashioned melodrama. The Immigrant, now playing exclusively at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, covers familiar territory: A wide-eyed ingénue in the big city falls prey to the clutches of a bad man. Yet that familiarity is part of what makes these stories so powerful. They speak to things — temptation, suffering and redemption — deeply rooted in our collective being.
It also helps when melodrama is expertly done. The Immigrant writer-director James Gray creates a painstakingly detailed New York of 1921, from the crowded queues of Ellis Island to the cluttered tenements of the Lower East Side. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour, Midnight in Paris) provides the requisite sepia hues that recall the early scenes of The Godfather Part II.
This tale’s protagonist, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard, The Dark Knight Rises), has fled Poland with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) for opportunity in the United States. The pair awaits processing at Ellis Island when Magda is whisked away and sent to the infirmary; she is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Similarly, Ewa is blocked from leaving the island since something that occurred on the America-bound ship has labeled her a woman of “low morals.” Ewa, alone and panicked, faces certain deportation.
Her luck changes — and not for the better — when she catches the eye of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, Her), an entrepreneur of sorts who appears to have influence with immigration officials. He is immediately smitten with the forlorn young woman, offering her boarding and a job with a burlesque company called the Bandits Roost. Bruno arranges for her release to the mainland.
As Ewa soon learns, Bruno’s burlesque troupe isn’t much for dancing. Their striptease, a poke in the eye of America’s so-called melting pot, consists of the women lampooning foreigners. Bruno pimps them when they are not on stage. Ewa initially resists turning tricks, but she succumbs because she needs the money for Magda’s hospitalization.
Cotillard and Phoenix are exceptional. Both give restrained performances in a narrative that practically dares them to cut loose with theatricality. Alongside these two, it’s not surprising that Jeremy Renner (American Hustle) rings a bit hollow as Bruno’s cousin and Ewa’s would-be suitor.
Ewa and Bruno are tantalizingly ambivalent characters, struggling beneath the weight of their conscience and self-loathing. “Is it a sin to want to survive?” Ewa says at one point. “I am not nothing.” Proving the worthiness of existence, however, is no small feat when relegated to the margins of society.
Gray, whose previous credits include Two Lovers and We Own the Night, is undaunted by emotion and earnestness. In The Immigrant, arguably his most accomplished work to date, he captures a raw expressiveness reminiscent of silent films. A drama unfettered by the twin brats of irony and snark? That is not nothing.