Two forlorn women on a boat peer through the mist and see the Statue of Liberty. They are headed for Ellis Island, but as the title of The Immigrant indicates, only one of them is going to reach the teeming, filthy, and corrupt streets of 1921 New York City. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) tries to get her ill sister, Magda, past the customs officers at Ellis Island, but Magda is sent to temporary quarantine. Ewa is denied admittance because of a report that she is a woman of low morals, based on an incident that happened aboard the ship that carried the sisters from Silesia. Whatever happened before that, in their home country, was bad enough that they are determined to never go back, no matter what.
Ewa may have some idea of how difficult it will be to survive without money, but when a seemingly respectable businessman named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) bends the law to get her off the island, Ewa’s gratitude is without suspicion. Bruno is drawn to her beauty, but Ewa soon learns the truth: Bruno runs a burlesque show, and the show is a front for a prostitution ring. And because Ewa needs money–and large amounts of money if she is going to pay for her sister’s medical care–she passively allows herself to be exploited.
This desperate underbelly of the immigrant experience is filmed in heavy sepia tones, and except for the occasional fine meal and swig of absinthe, the lives of these immigrants—Bruno is the son of Jewish refugees, and most of the girls in the show are Eastern Europeans without job skills—is as dreary and despairing as the art direction. The details of Bruno’s operation seem authentic; he pays off the police who are also his customers (social hypocrisy is the film’s assured subtext) and is differential to the theater’s madam. Because of Ewa’s radiant attractiveness (from start to finish, the cinematography is dedicated to highlighting Cotillard’s resemblance to a silent-screen siren), she could easily find a better occupation, or manager, but Bruno has connections at Ellis Island, and apparently, Ewa is trapped, her devout Catholicism submerged to the greater good of helping her sister.
It’s a slice-of-immigrant-life mostly confined to tawdry encounters, and even the nightlife scenes drag as though through mud, until Bruno’s magician cousin, Emil (a charming Jeremy Renner), arrives as a much-needed tonic of verve and showmanship. But Emil’s desire for Ewa pushes the proceedings into melodrama instead of adding another element of moral complexity as intended.
Moral quandary is a recurring motif in director James Gray’s career, and he has helmed several movies based on the experiences of Russian immigrants in New York City (he’s from Queens). Phoenix has starred in four of them, most notably The Yards. Yet The Immigrant is Gray’s weakest effort to date. Reportedly, the filmmaker’s inspiration for the film was meeting Cotillard and wanting to star her in a movie. Though this cinematic portrait of the actress is unfailingly alluring, Ewa’s wan personality isn’t enough to carry the story, and even the protean Phoenix seems unnaturally subdued until Bruno unnaturally responds to his own moral turpitude. Penitence is achieved, but it’s the audience who will feel punished.