Written by: Richard Menello & James Gray
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Yelena Solovey, Dagmara Dominczyk
Promises of the American Dream have caused many to come to make it a reality in this country fairly steadily for so long now that the population of those who attempt the move has changed on several occasions. Coming into the country barely knowing the language and trying to navigate within a culture that only cares about what output the individual can bring may come as a shock but becomes the reality for the character we follow in The Immigrant. Far from the fairytale some would hope to believe this voyage to be, this film gets into the depravity and nightmare situation this individual must undergo to be a citizen.
Arriving on the shores of Ellis Island, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) sees her sister taken to an infirmary as they check for possible diseases. Taken in by a seemingly kind fellow, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), she must do whatever it takes to survive long enough to get her sister out and try to make something of their lives in the United States.
Seedy and difficult to watch at times, The Immigrant opts for realism when a more fantastical view was available. An option to show the true depths of what a woman like Ewa had to deal with when arriving in the United States from Poland and how she dreamt this would be compared to her old home. This decision certainly did not come lightly and the things she has to do to not be thrown out into the freezing streets shows the level of resolve this character has and the journey we follow along with her is equally heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
With Ewa’s journey, she must contend and find a way to satisfy Bruno, who gets her off the line of being deported back to Poland as long as she works. Working in the context of Bruno includes being a prostitute at the Bandits’ Roost Theater where she gets dressed up as Lady Liberty to be auctioned off as someone’s pleasure of the night. Whatever Ewa thought coming to the United States would look like certainly did not equal the heinous things she was forced to do and the most heartbreaking aspect of it all comes from the fact she’s doing this for her sister. She could pack her bag and leave for better prospects, but with her sister stuck in the Ellis Island infirmary, she cannot leave the city, thus keeping her attached to Bruno.
This central relationship waivers from the sweet and the disturbing and much of that has to do with the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. It does not need to be repeated the level of talent this man has but the manner in which he can portray sweetness and then wholly terrifying within one swing deserves plenty of commendation. He handles the complicated character of Bruno with style as he battles with his desires for Ewa, but also the fact he needs to make money out of her. Very much a sleazeball but one who changes his mind on several occasions and has a short fuse whenever things slightly do not go his way. As audience members, the way we feel about Bruno changes on several occasions throughout, which serves as props to Phoenix, who taps into the humanity of this character even if he’s a scumbag for much of the story.
Balancing hope and horrors of reality becomes the journey for Ewa as she must contend with the horrid situation she has found for herself but must maintain a level of strength in order to fight for her sister’s release and accomplish what they came to this country to receive. While the narrative likes to stick in the horrid side for much of the runtime, the ultimate goal never escapes Ewa as she does what must be done in order to get her sister out of the infirmary. Maintaining this balance highlights the strong work done by Marion Cotillard in this film. When things get at their slimiest, the glimmers of hope she displays through this character elevates everything around her. From the demure scenes of meekness to the moments where she reminds the characters and audience members she knows how to defend herself, Cotillard does so well with this role. So much of the film’s success hinges on her ability to carry the film and the bet on her certainly paid off.
Certainly grim and not the easiest watch around, The Immigrant tells an important tale about the experience of entering the country. Coming over without the firmest of safety nets puts Ewa in a compromising situation just to simply survive. However, she still has the issue of getting to her sister. A certain level of depravity runs throughout this entire film as Ewa tries to figure out who she can trust, but this all serves as such a brutal learning experience for her.