Real Rather Than Reel Coming to America
James Gray’s co-written screenplay for The Immigrant includes anecdotal material like the unpeeled banana, recounted long ago by his Russian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrant grandparents. Notwithstanding, Gray insists it’s personal, i.e., emotionally close, but not autobiographical. Moved by Puccini operetta Suor Angelica -- “sister,” as in nun -- he did the unusual in centering his tale on a woman, so leaving the story free to develop within the more honest emotion of pure melodrama without interference from cultural masculinity.
The voluble director talked with equal open honesty about the project, while Joaquin Phoenix limited himself to sarcastic cryptic one-liners at their New York Film Festival Q&A. From the first, the actor had been his only choice for a rôle that turned out as meaty as that of the woman. Gray did not feel he would have made this film without Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, whose face had so impressed him when his friend and her boyfriend introduced them and, in disagreement over another, unnamed actor’s talent, she had thrown bread at him.
In sepia tones, aside from 1921 Ellis Island, the near two hours occurs on Manhattan’s fabled, at that time overwhelmingly Jewish, Lower East Side. That Ewunia “Ewa” Cybulski (Cotillard) is Catholic makes her thus doubly, even triply, an outsider besides providing a late, too easily eavesdropped confessional there to reveal spoken emotions that influence another’s actions.
Lodz Polish -- the actress had only weeks to learn dialogue in that language -- she is a survivor who will do, and has already done, whatever is necessary to protect weak sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Things darken when Aunt Edyta and Uncle Voytek (Maja Wampuszyc, Ilia Volok) apparently do not come to meet and take them to Brooklyn, while, quarantined with lung problems, the sister is in danger of deportation back to their country that had not existed between 1795 and 1919.
Ewa’s beauty attracts Phoenix’ dapper Bruno Weiss, who uses money and familiar customs contacts to pass her through and off the island to a tenement where perhaps she can find seamstress work. Intrigued, a bit smitten, he does “not need to force myself on you” though angrily spitting out that she will need money to live, let alone bribe officials for her sister’s release.
Bruno works out of motherly Rosie Hertz’ (Yelena Solovey) burleycue leg show theater, named Bandit’s Roost from the actual thugs’ den in the classic 1895 Jacob Riis photograph. Pitchman, entrepreneur and pimp with longtime dealings with immigration guards through whom he procures women, in the past he had a professional and personal falling-out with his cousin Emile (Jeremy Renner), whom he had forced out but who is attempting a comeback as levitating magician Orlando at Ellis Island -- his act just before a performance by Caruso! -- and then at Bandit’s Roost.
In looks and mannerisms Renner is even less convincing as first-generation LES Jewish-American than Phoenix. His Orlando and the latter’s Bruno both fall for the Gentile heroine, but in different ways selfishly box her into an impossible, deadly, corner. Bruno’s temper and pride land him in desperate straits, huckstering his harem in Central Park pedestrian underpasses, where they are ridiculous and cold in scanty “exotic” outfits and he winds up tugging Ewa along while pursued by crooked anti-Semitic Irish patrolmen.
A strong personality at the same time as a victim, pandered Ewa nevertheless preserves humanity and loyalty in the face of adversity, along with what Horatio Alger called pluck. Some of the film scenes fall flat, but, after all, the American Dream, and hers as well, is of a future in which one never loses hope. In this New World, one can always move across the river and further west.
(Released by The Weinstein Company; not rated by MPAA.)