American filmmaker James Gray (‘The Yards’, ‘We Own The Night’) turns in his first period piece with this well-meaning but unpersuasive and fatally lifeless melodrama about the immigrant experience in 1920s New York. It begins with the arrival of two young Polish sisters, Ewa and Magda, on the city’s Ellis Island in 1921. Magda is quickly whipped off to the infirmary with suspected tuberculosis, leaving Ewa, played with a frustrating passivity by Marion Cotillard, to live in the shadow of her absence for the rest of the film.
Struggling to reconcile her Catholic faith with the horrors of being a penniless, vulnerable immigrant alone in New York City, Ewa enters purgatory when a shady character, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), helps her off Ellis Island by slipping the guards some cash. He eases her into a life of sleazy theatre and even sleazier prostitution, giving her accommodation in return. The early scenes are curious enough as we wonder about the true nature of Bruno’s interest in Ewa. He’s not obviously evil and even shows some compassion at points. He’s just sympathetic enough for us to wonder what circumstances have led him to be in this position himself.
The appearance of Bruno’s cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician who Ewa encounters during a second stay at Ellis Island, only complicates Ewa’s situation as she finds herself caught between two men with conflicting but overwhelming interests in her. It’s a perverse love rivalry that in the end comes across as awkward and distracting.
Gray’s desire to tell this story as carefully as possibly, leaning on a quiet classical approach and avoiding overplaying the claustrophobia and grubbiness of Ewa’s situation, is admirable enough. But the result is airless and equivocal. Gray is too reliant on plot turns that are hard to believe, and on observing Cotillard’s face and hoping her eyes and expressions will tell the story. That said, Cotillard is a sad, wounded but firm presence. It’s Phoenix who is all at sea, shuffling and shouting and appearing lost as the film enters a later, more shambolic stretch. ‘The Immigrant’ promises rich territory to explore, but in the execution it’s overly stately, dreary and unconvincing.