American Dreamers

American Dreamers

Harsh life in a new land take its toll in ‘The Immigrant’

By Michael Nordine 05/15/2014

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It takes “The Immigrant” all of five minutes to feel like a definitive statement on not just the immigrant experience but the American experience as a whole — including, but not limited to, the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and James Gray's masterful new film achieves it via a simple exchange between two sisters arriving on Ellis Island in 1921. Magda is pulled out of line due a troubling cough, and Ewa is distraught at the mere mention of deportation: “We can’t go back,” she cries out. “We never go back.” There’s an elemental power to her words, and if your eyes are already misty at this point you’re in for quite a visceral wallop over the next two hours.

Gray based the story on his grandparents’ recollections of their early years in America, and every indelible moment feels at once frozen in time yet utterly timeless — like a flower pressed between the pages of an old diary. The result has the sweeping feel of a historical epic with none of the pretense. The director is first and foremost concerned with his characters’ physical and emotional journeys; the fact that their experiences are emblematic of something much greater than themselves almost reads as a happy coincidence. Ewa is rescued from limbo by the outwardly benevolent Bruno, who gives her a place to sleep and a job that she does with utmost reluctance in order to get her sister out of the infirmary. Played by Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively, Ewa and Bruno are wellsprings of regret and sorrow who externalize their pain in markedly different ways. They’re joined in this by Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician whose intentions for Ewa further complicate what’s already an uneasy arrangement.

The film has a golden hue to it, with nearly every shot — from the promise of the Statue of Liberty to the disappointment of the club where Ewa ends up working — feeling both iconic and steeped in the everyday reality of the huddled masses. This is a difficult land, one whose new inhabitants have to play-act their way into acceptance by those who came before them. That feeling of rejection colors the actions of the characters, Bruno’s most of all. He reveals only what he needs to at any given point, and your feelings toward him may change from one scene to the next.

Whatever you do, whatever you’re passionate about, “The Immigrant” will make you want to do it better. Not only because the film itself is such a marvel, but because Ewa is so concerned with being upright in the face of what is, for her, a moral conundrum. She ponders whether it’s a sin to want to survive when you’ve done something unforgivable, too forlorn to see that she’s done nothing wrong at all. Those who were supposed to guide her to a better life abandoned her, and her apparent rescuer has what might kindly be described as ulterior motives for doing so. 

Cotillard has already turned in a number of wonderful performances, but this may be her best. Her eyes hint at untold pain from a tragic past and uncertain future, and each of her carefully chosen words reveals just a little bit more of what it means to be forgiven not only by God and those you feel you’ve wronged but, perhaps more importantly, by yourself.

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