Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 5, 2015)
A historical drama that boasts Oscar-caliber actors, 2014’s The Immigrant takes us back to January 1921. Polish sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda Cybulska (Angela Sarafyan) flee their native land to come to more promising pastures in the United States.
However, when they reach Ellis Island, they hit a snag, as authorities declare Magda too ill to enter the country. Due to a possible lung disease, Magda gets quarantined for six months; if her symptoms don’t improve, she’ll find herself sent back to Poland. Ewa plans to live with her aunt and uncle, but her contact information for them appears to prove false.
This leaves Ewa on the verge of deportation, but not for long, as she soon meets Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who claims to work for the Travelers Aid Society. After she pleads her case, he agrees to help her. However, it turns out that Bruno wants to use Ewa for less than savory reasons and he turns her into a burlesque performer and a prostitute.
In the midst of this miserable circumstance, Ewa meets Bruno’s cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner). A suave stage magician, Orlando falls for Ewa and becomes a possible avenue out of her terrible situation. However, Bruno also maintains feelings for Ewa, which complicates matters.
To date, Cotillard boasts two Oscar nominations, and she won for one of those roles. Both of those came from movies in which Cotillard spoke her natural French, but Cotillard has become more involved in efforts that require her to speak English.
My prior experiences with Cotillard in these English-speaking parts left me somewhat unimpressed. She became arguably the weakest link in the otherwise splendid Dark Knight Rises and didn’t stand out to me as memorable in the other American films.
Immigrant contrasts with those efforts in a number of ways. For one, it places Cotillard as the lead; she operated as a supporting character in the other flicks. In addition, it clearly features Cotillard as a non-American, so her facility with English became less of a potential liability. Granted, the other movies didn’t attempt to camouflage her accent, but her speech patterns make more sense here and allow us to accept any awkwardness she may show.
Freed of some of those language-related concerns, Cotillard does pretty well as Ewa. She’s probably too old for the part; Cotillard is almost 40, whereas Ewa seems like she’s supposed to be mid-twenties at most.
However, that doesn’t become a notable issue, as Cotillard does fine in the part. She maintains a good sense of emotional reserve and plays Ewa in a logical, appropriate manner that avoids gimmicks or emotional showiness.
Too bad the movie’s characters and story seem so thin. Actually, Bruno and Orlando muster moderate complexity, and they take us down somewhat unexpected paths. In particular, Bruno proves to be more than the simple sleaze he initially appears to be.
Nonetheless, Immigrant tends to lack a lot of depth, as it feels more like a dark dramatic fable about the American dream than a fleshed-out narrative. Much of the film proceeds at a slow pace, and by the time events start to heat up, it seems too late.
Immigrant provides a great-looking film, as its creators work hard to deliver a period tale that takes place in a realistic universe. We find a solid sense of the era and gorgeous cinematography. The movie seems to get the details right and turns into a lavish visual affair.
Unfortunately, I get the impression they devoted so much time and effort to that side of things that they neglected characters and narrative. Too much of The Immigrant feels hollow, as it just doesn’t develop the way it should. This leaves it as an attractive film but not an especially interesting one.