Critic’s Pick: ‘The Immigrant’

Mation Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix come to America (courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

Mation Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix come to America (courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

 

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James Gray weds personal ancestry and opera in a drama about a Polish sister, Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard), who walks off the boat at Ellis Island in 1921 into the arms of a well-dressed shyster, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Having left behind her coughing sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) at the island infirmary, and fearing for her own deportation, the beauty will now do nearly anything to raise the money to rescue Magda and weather the false promises of the promised land of America.

Oscar-winner Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose,” “The Dark Knight Rises”), speaking flawless regional Polish as well as English, pulls the camera toward her in every scene. There is not a wasted movement so that when she suddenly draws a pair of seamstress scissors in self-defense, the audience awakens to how tightly wound Ewa has been, how completely on her guard. It is a performance of operatic feeling, with the control of her instrument that only great singers have: capable of reaching the audience in the farthest seats with an emotion as small and fragile as an eyelash.

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As fraught as Ewa’s arrival in America is, when she steps between Bruno, who has plucked her off the boat like a pimp looking for Midwestern flesh at the bus terminal in Manhattan’s Penn Station, and his cousin/rival, Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), her situation darkens. She becomes the canary between these two tomcats.

It is fun to see Renner out of the action of “Avengers” and playing a puckish period performer with a sly mustache who first meets Ewa when levitating himself before a ragged group at Ellis Island. Even in drama, there is the opportunity to “meet cute” – but there will be no romcom resolution.

“The Immigrant” extends Gray’s tight body of work. From his brilliant 1994 debut feature, “Little Odessa” (rent it!) set in the contemporary immigrant community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the director (and co-writer) has told stories of complicated America citizens, often with roots in the old country. He is a studious and compassionate filmmaker with a strong knack for directing actors with grit. One of his trademarks is his fearlessness in peeling back male emotion.

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“The Immigrant” is Gray’s fourth collaboration with Phoenix and, like the better known teams of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, or Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, or Howard Hawks and Cary Grant, they play each other well.

Phoenix, despite his off-screen antics, remains an actor of profound depth and range: “The Master,” “Walk the Line,” and “Gladiator.” He surprises. He has wells of tragedy, yes, but also the capacity for comedy both broad and specific, and great charm.

The awkward moments in this movie where Bruno emcees a cheesy girlie revue that recalls “Cabaret” have inspired some criticism of Phoenix’s acting. But Bruno the emcee is not Joel Grey’s accomplished cabaret performer. Phoenix intentionally plays these performances within a performance badly. (Remember he nailed Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.”) For Bruno, being on stage is a hustle not an art. He is an immigrant himself, who as a boy had to peddle any skill he had to survive, even if that meant tacking bottle caps to the soles of his shoes and dancing in the street.

So who is the immigrant of the title: Ewa or Bruno or even Orlando the Magician? They all are.

Bottom Line: All-stars Cotillard, Phoenix and Renner sail back in time for a deeply moving melodrama