A Deep and Dramatic Success Set in the Swinging 1920’s
Period pieces can be funny breed. Move too much towards historical accuracy and you run the risk of losing casual audiences, move too far into fiction and the buffs loudly complain. The best historical dramas are ones who toe the line between interesting characters and genuine, realistic settings. The Immigrant, the latest film from director James Grey (We Own the Night, Two Lovers), is a perfect balancing act that blends a series of excellent performances with a solid story to create one of the most interesting and emotional films of the year thus far.
The ever exceptional Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant on her way to New York to live with her well established aunt and uncle. She is accompanied by her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) who is taken into custody at Ellis Island after doctors discover she has tuberculosis. Alone and with no way of getting her sister out, Ewa accepts the help of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), an NYC socialite. Ewa quickly learns nothing comes for free in the big city as she discovers Bruno runs an undercover cabaret and prostitution ring. Disgusted yet defiant, Ewa offers her services to the shady 1920’s pimp in the hopes of earning enough money to free her ailing sister.
As I previously mentioned, the performances are across the board terrific, starting with the always dependable Cotillard. The former Oscar winner channels her inner Scarlett O’Hara, creating a sympathetic lead of strength and conviction, even when she’s operating outside the lines. Full of depth and feeling, Cotillard delivers a subtle yet powerful performance, one of the best I’ve seen this year from a female lead.
On the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Renaissance Man himself, Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix’s character requires more of an arc than Cotillard and his swing from cocksure showman to his spoiler free emotional state is impressive and honest. Fresh from his triumph in Her, Phoenix is quickly becoming one of Hollywood most rejuvenated actors and his turn in The Immigrant is proof he’s more The Master than I’m Still Here. Jeremy Renner also makes an appearance as Bruno’s vaudevillian brother and the third part of what becomes a shaky love triangle. Quickly developing into an exceptional character actor, Renner is a breath of fresh air, delivered exactly when needed the movie needs it most.
The story itself is rock solid, providing just enough visual splash and historical realism to keep us engaged in the drama. Patiently filmed and carefully crafted, Gray uses the setting of 1920’s New York to set the tone of decadence and desperation. Underneath all of the glitz and illegal booze, our leads live in tenements and walk through dirty streets, an excellent compare /contrast to bolster the steady filmmaking.
When people think of the “good old days”, it’s either the idealism of the mid 50’s the Great Gatsby’s 20’s. The fantasy of carefree living under the economic boom of post-World War 1 is an alluring one. With The Immigrant, James Grey paints an honest picture of personal struggle under the bright lit façade of pre-Depression New York. With gripping performances, a nuanced story and sure handed direction, The Immigrant delivers a healthy dose of well-made drama that’s sure to satisfy those looking for something meatier this blockbuster season.
Score: 9 out of 10