James Gray has always enjoyed a good reputation in France and so it comes as little surprise to see his fifth film, The Immigrant (2013), showing in competition here at Cannes. The year is 1920 and in the wake of the Great War, Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island – in scenes reminiscent of 1974’s The Godfather: Part II – with her tubercular sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). When Magda is taken into quarantine and Ewa threatened with deportation for alleged immoral behaviour on the passage, the American Dream looks like turning into something more akin to a nightmare.
However, help is at hand in the shape of Bruno Weiss (regular Gray collaborator Joaquin Phoenix), a representative of a charitable fund who bribes the guards to let Ewa off the island. Once in New York, it becomes apparent that Bruno is not all that he seems and Ewa is going to have to somehow survive in a demi-monde of vaudeville, prostitution and nascent show business. Gray has here assembled a classical Hollywood formula; a lush, sepia portrait that borrows freely from 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America as well as the feel of a Dostoyevskian potboiler. Ewa’s religious fervour and moral quandaries are in direct conflict with not only her need to survive, but also her need to raise money to free Magda.
Ewa’s problem (and that of The Immigrant as a whole) is that she has to place her trust entirely in the utterly untrustworthy Bruno in order to help Magda, even though we’ve only met her sister as a coughing impediment, with no real reason to care for her other than Ewa’s insistence. Trouble also arrives in the form of Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a Houdini-style magician and Bruno’s cousin, who immediately takes a liking to Ewa. Fortunately, the performances are, by and large, excellent, with Phoenix giving us another unstable misfit who demands our sympathy even at his most reprehensible. Renner also has fun with a turn that seems modelled on a foetal Clark Gable, full of panache and charm, but fatally careless.
If anything, Cotillard is the weak link. Her injured yet resilient flower could easily have been picked from an Emile Zola novel, and although Gray shoots her like Joan of Arc, she’s never particularly endearing; the madness she causes in men is only partially explainable. Thankfully, The Immigrant escapes the golden glow of its melodramatic clichés through the calibre of Gray’s craft – some of his shot composition serves as a masterclass in the art – and the turns of his starry cast. A sombre tale of how women can endure and men can change, Gray’s latest is a solid period piece which should attract certain plaudits in Europe – if not, unfortunately, the US.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.