Seeking out the

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The Immigrant

Directed by James Gray
Produced by Anthony Katagas, Greg Shapiro, James Gray, and Christopher Woodrow
Written by James Gray and Ric Menello
With: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Dagmara Dominczyk, Angela Sarafyan, and Jeremy Renner
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Editing: John Axelrad and Kayla Emter
Music: Christopher Spelman
Runtime: 120 min
Release Date: 23 May 2014
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

The Immigrant is the best film yet from writer/director James Grey (Little Odessa, We Own the Night, Two Lovers). Grey, a unique voice in contemporary cinema, makes old school adult dramas, a genre supposedly forsaken by today's filmmakers and audiences. Watching any of his movies evokes a pleasurable experience of traveling back in time and seeing a good film from a couple of decades ago. This nostalgic feeling is magnified while watching The Immigrant, an exquisitely rendered period piece that brings its 1920s New York setting to life while simultaneously recalling wonderful films from the past. I often felt as if I was watching Sergio Leone’s 1984 epic Once Upon a Time in America, and it’s impressive what Grey and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour, Midnight in Paris, Se7en, The City of Lost Children) have managed to create with resources far more limited than Leone's.

The story is fictional, but it's based loosely on Grey’s own parents' immigration to America from Russia in 1923. The Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Midnight in Paris, Rust and Bone), in her first leading role in English, plays Ewa Cybulski, a young woman who immigrates from Poland and falls into a life of prostitution and despair when she's separated from her sister at Elis Island. Grey’s favorite leading man Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno, a shady opportunist who both corrupts and redeems Ewa. I've never seen Cotillard give anything less than an excellent performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for her tour de force here. Her character’s pain, confusion, sorrow, and occasional joy are palpable, and Grey and Khondji photograph Cotillard’s luminous face and incredibly expressive eyes in ways that make dialogue unnecessary. It is unfortunate that none of her costars can achieve this perfect blend of theatricality and verisimilitude.

Grey seems totally unconcerned with the dictates of modern commercial cinema and approaches the film as an instrument for evoking emotions, rather than telling a solid story. As a result, the picture can feel a bit meandering, and anything that doesn’t feel 100 percent authentic is conspicuous like a distracting rip in a delicately sewn fabric. The primary example of this is the introduction of Jeremy Renner as the film’s third lead character, a raffish stage magician. As an actor, Renner feels out of time, and his character isn’t developed enough for us to fully accept his intrusion into the story. Renner’s presence breaks the film’s ethereal spell and draws our attention to the mechanics of its plot. Still, I became almost completely lost in the picture’s grand visuals and old-fashioned craftsmanship. Grey has brought a historical era to life with the vivid, visceral feeling of entering into an old photograph, rather than peering from a great remove at the handsome but empty reproduction of a painter or computer, and in doing so, he has succeeded where so many period filmmakers fail.