Showing his amazing versatility as an actor, Joaquin Phoenix plays a character (Bruno) in The Immigrant utterly unlike Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice (or Theodore in Her). Bruno, who appears to rescue the ‘immigrant’ in question from certain deportation in 1921 New York City, is not a likable fellow at all.
The immigrant is Ewa Cybulska from Poland, played very well by Marion Cotillard. Ewa has come over with her sister, who has tuberculosis and is forced to stay on Ellis Island for six months. If that’s not bad enough, Ewa’a aunt and uncle don’t show up to get her and the government official claims their address isn’t valid. So it’s back to Poland for Ewa until she is ‘rescued’ by Bruno, who offers her a place to stay and a job where he works. Unfortunately for Ewa, we soon discover that Bruno is a pimp. Persuaded that she has no choice, and needing to support her sister, Ewa reluctantly becomes one of Bruno’s girls. Then along comes Bruno’s cousin, Emil, played by Jeremy Renner, another would-be rescuer. But is Emil really the hero he appears?
The Immigrant is a straightforward, though dark, film, filmed in yellow tones that make New York City seem like a very different world than the 1920‘s New York City of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But there are a couple of things that make The Immigrant a special film.
First is the way all of the characters in The Immigrant are humanized. Bruno, Emil and Ewa (and others) are all flawed characters but they are all treated as people struggling to make the best of life. There are no moral blacks and whites in The Immigrant.
Second is the depiction of Ewa’s Christian faith. At a time when few films depict faith of any kind, or do so very critically, The Immigrant presents a faith that, in many ways, is Ewa’s only hope for redemption, getting her through one traumatic episode after another (despite a less-than-helpful priest) and giving her both a powerful strength of character as well as the power to forgive people who have done terrible things to her.
What The Immigrant lacked, for me, was the kind of pacing (it’s very slow-paced) and intensity that might have created more interest and a stronger emotional connection. Still, a solid ***+. My mug is up.