The opening shot of James Gray's "The Immigrant" is, rather befittingly, the Statue of Liberty, circa 1921. For Lady Liberty, herself of foreign origins, exemplifies the ideals and ambitions millions upon millions of immigrants have sacrificed and labored for in the hopes of one day achieving. The camera then pulls back slowly and the statue disappears into the background, for this is no grand tale of success or prosperity, but of the hardships and struggles associated with the vast majority of immigration experiences.
The title character refers to Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant freshly off the boat at Ellis Island alongside her sister , Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The sisters are hastily separated when Magda is unable to conceal her illness (later discovered to be tuberculosis), and is promptly quarantined. Faced with deportation, Ewa is recruited by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a shady theater promoter, who is able to furnish her with a bed and employment.
Ewa finds her situation anything but ideal, and it is not long before her body becomes her greatest commodity. Feeling exploited by Bruno, she manages to locate her aunt and uncle, earlier immigrants living in the city for some time now. This effort proves futile, and she is once again resigned to operate under Bruno.
Further complications ensue when Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician and Bruno's cousin, enters the picture and is instantly enraptured by Ewa. Partly seeing it as an infringement of his turf and partly out of envy, Bruno reacts hostilely towards Emil's advances towards Ewa. Ewa, whose justification for her prostitution is a hopeful reunion with her sister, is torn between the two men. Not necessarily out of love, for something so trivial surely has no use in the world of struggles Ewa finds herself in, but she is divided as to whom can properly benefit her, as she has reason to doubt both men's claims.
Showcasing a handsome reproduction of early 1920's New York, Gray's film is a very sympathetic portrait of the burden of immigrant life. As depicted in the film, the processing system dehumanized the migrants, frighteningly close to the same degree as the slave processing in "Goodbye Uncle Tom." If one was lucky enough to make it through customs and into the country, "The Immigrant" pulls no punches in representing the strife of the urban environment at a time where work came cheap and arduous, as was human life.
As one would come to expect by now, Marion Cotillard, who has been nothing less than terrific in various foreign and domestic films in the last couple years, is well cast as Ewa. Able to channel the character's sympathy without falling victim to excessive sentiment, Cotillard's Ewa is a woman who has convinced herself to make the necessary sacrifices, yet cannot help but to bear the guilt. Though Cotillard's Ewa may doubt her methods, her zeal is never up for question. She is absolutely determined to see her sister again from whatever cash she can scrap together, and the end will surely justify the means.
Also notable is Phoenix, who continues his recent career renaissance following 2012's "The Master" and 2013's "Her." Bruno, as played by Phoenix, is undoubtedly taking advantage of Ewa and her situation, yet there is a sense of gentleness and care that Phoenix is able to bring to the character. Under Bruno's wing, Ewa may be compromised, but she is cared for and secure. Bruno never physically abuses her or coerces her into something she isn't prepared for, as her path into prostitution was clearly forged given the situation, whether she came across Bruno or not. Thus Bruno's recruitment was both a blessing and a curse for Ewa. Great credit should go to screenwriters Gray and Ric Menello and actor Phoenix for carving a well-structured and nuanced character out of what could have easily fallen into the ranks of cliché.
As her character states early on, Ewa's only ambition in coming to America is "to be happy," yet she finds her conditions to be anything but. Thus "The Immigrant" is a testament to the trials and tribulations that countless individuals and families have endeavored (and those who continue to do so) at the aspiration of forging a better lives for themselves.