The Immigrant joins a long line of films tracing new beginnings in a foreign land. Sadly, this one fails to truly arrive.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Faulty shades of Gray leaves The Immigrant lacking

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard star in The Immigrant.
Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard star in The Immigrant.

For those of us from immigrant and refugee heritage, visiting New York City’s Ellis Island, the disembarkation point for generations of immigrants to the United States, is a profoundly moving experience. Now a museum, its stark black-and-white photographs of peasants from Ireland, across Europe and into central Asia and the Middle East cannot help but remind us of the painful stories of war, poverty and despair that give rise to the urge to flee a devastated homeland, or to escape the most heinous manifestations of ignorance and hatred. 

It is also impossible not to stare at these images without reflecting on the potency of the American Dream, the hope of renewal and self-re-creation that still reverberates in the mythologies of the US. Ellis Island, this small clump of rock at the end of Manhattan, is imbued with something of the sacred, given the histories of promise and pain that are central to exile. Ellis Island seems unmoored from the great metropolis itself, outside the physical constraint of national borders:
it belongs to us. 

There are films that one awaits with a keen anticipation and James Gray’s The Immigrant was, for me, one of those. I have admired Gray’s work since his first feature, 1994’s Little Odessa, and though I have had critical reservations about all his work, he has expertly essayed the experiences of multicultural Jewish and gentile New York in films such as The Yards and Two Lovers

Gray has been consistent in interviews in acknowledging his debt to the auteurist American cinema of the 1970s; and, indeed, the moral ambiguities and claustrophobic intensity of his work brings to mind early Coppola and Scorsese. Even when the genre constraints of films such as We Own the Night or The Yards ultimately prove tiresome or overwrought, I have stayed involved with them for how they seem to authentically capture the experience of alienation and disenfranchisement that is the underside to the American myths of immigrant success. His is a cinema of melancholy. And yet The Immigrant, a film that begins with an exile’s point of view of the Liberty torch and then a glimpse of the walls of Ellis Island’s detention centre becoming visible through a gloomy winter’s mist, is deeply disappointing. 

The main failure with this new film is that Gray has not trusted enough in the power of the immigrant story; he has constrained it within a melodramatic plot that continually undermines it. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish refugee who arrives with her sister on Ellis Island in 1921. Her sister has tuberculosis and both siblings are denied entry. A small-time pimp, Bruno (played by Joaquin Phoenix), intervenes and organises for Ewa’s disembarkation. She distrusts Bruno’s motives but when her only relatives in New York prove unwilling to help her, Ewa, who desperately wants to obtain the money to keep her sister in America, succumbs to his manipulation and becomes a prostitute. For a period she believes that Bruno’s magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), might prove her salvation. But the two men, blinded by a hatred that stretches back to their childhood, seem unwilling to put aside their rivalry and save Ewa. 

The immigrant experience that Gray is portraying in this film is nearly a century old, and a near half-century separates his film from works such as Elia Kazan’s America America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. Conceived and written by second-generation artists who felt an urgency to commit their family stories to the screen, those earlier films resonated with audiences that understood they were mapping how the immigrant narratives were embedded in the contemporary cultural and political myths of the nation. 

For us, the importance of the migration story is now centred on films that depict the experience of asylum seekers and the sans-papiers. As the experience of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island recedes in time, and as the “Old Worlds” of Europe and Asia increasingly become the locations for displaced peoples, the most vital recent films of immigrant and refugee experience are no longer American. A film such as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet has an epic breadth to match the Coppola trilogy, investigating how European identity now is inexorably linked to the postcolonial transformation of that continent. It is Audiard’s film that speaks to us of how the world works today. 

I suspect it is in his desire to make the film relevant that Gray has chosen to tell a story from the margins. Growing up in an immigrant household, I was always curious of those stories communicated by adults in hushed tones, those conversations that abruptly ceased when I entered the room. As children we gleaned that the adults were discussing peers who had made choices that placed them outside the community. 

In making Ewa a prostitute, this might have been Gray’s intention, to resurrect histories that remained silenced within both the immigrant and dominant cultures. But the portrayal of Ewa is so clichéd and sentimental – the archetypal whore with the heart of gold – that there is no way the character can connect with a contemporary viewer. In one particularly inept scene that made me give up on the film entirely, Ewa enters a Catholic Church and makes a confession. She is lit like the Madonna, as if Gray believes any genuine sexual agency would make her deserving of her ostracism. It is a remarkably retrograde conception.

Marion Cotillard is valiant in her attempt to give the character some strength and power, particularly in her early scenes. We are told that Ewa has seen her parents beheaded back in Poland, and it is only through the care and sensitivity in Cotillard’s performance that we sense this woman will never be able to fully trust again, that she has been party to horrors that have given her a steely determination to survive. 

Cotillard makes us believe in Ewa’s fierce will to save her sister. But forced to remain faithful to the melodramatic contrivance of the love-triangle plot, her performance becomes increasingly affected and unconvincing. Phoenix and Renner are very fine actors but they, too, cannot do anything within the banal confines of the script. 

When you gaze upon the photographs at Ellis Island, those weary women and men captured in the very moment of arriving to a promised land, you sense their fear, their expectation. From the very young to the most aged, the images are full of quiet and humbling dignity. 

One can forgive Gray the desire to try to reanimate the migration story, to want to find a way to make it reconnect with us. What is unforgivable is stripping them of that dignity. In 1975, Joan Micklin Silver made Hester Street, an intimate cameo of a film that sketched the lives of Jewish immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York. It is a small work, but elegant and authentic, and though it has been more than 25 years since I have seen it, images and scenes are still vivid in my imagination.

James Gray is a talented director and I will wait expectantly for his next film. But I doubt anything of The Immigrant will remain for me. I didn’t believe a moment of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 20, 2014 as "Faulty shades of Gray".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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