The Immigrant, dir. James Gray, wr. Ric Menello, James Gray, st. Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
There are two conflicting forces at work in James Gray's period tale of redemption and remission, set amongst the industrial haze of 1920s New York City. Cinematographer Darius Khonddji paints a vivid canvas of sepiaed oranges and browns internal and external. The initial scenes at Ellis Island, where Polish immigrant Ewa (Cotillard) and her sister Magda arrive having fled the war-torn horrors of their homeland in Poland, the Bandits Roost Theatre, where Bruno (Phoenix) runs a titillating burlesque club that provides Ewa with an opportunity to pay her way, and the pedestrian tunnels of Central Park that provide the setting for the film's final flight, are beautifully lit and photographed. Complete with gentle vignetting at the corners of the frame, the film suggests a flip-book of still images of Ewa's struggle for identity, captured, preserved then lost, only to be once more uncovered by the viewer. Unfortunately such poetic and historically resonant visuals are entirely at odds with the film's unconvincing melodrama. Cotillard, who can do so much with a look or a sigh, and whose character promises so much in the film's first act, discovers there's not much to salvage from her undeveloped character. In fact Gray's film strongly suggests Ewa serves only to provide Bruno with his narrative arc from entrepreneur and opportunist, to benefactor and liberator. Gray has stated that the vast majority of The Immigrant is anecdotal. That may very well be true, but whereas real life can often be forgiven for its clichés, cinema gets a march harder time. It's a shame Gray isn't half as good a storyteller as he is a painter.