Front Row at the Movies
Is About a Low Life
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
My wife’s grandmother came to America through Ellis Island. It wasn’t a sure thing, being admitted to this new land of opportunity. Some were turned away.
In James Gray’s “The Immigrant” -- now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- we meet a woman faced with that threat.
Set in 1921, Ewa (portrayed by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) and her sister flee the war in Poland, traveling to New York to seek a better life. But their American dream turns into a nightmare at Ellis Island.
The sister is quarantined for tuberculosis and Ewa finds herself on the verge of being deported. However, up steps an oily stranger (Joaquin Phoenix) who slips a guard a few dollars to let Ewa go with him. Now in Bruno’s debt, she learns that the job he offers is not that of a chambermaid … in the strictest sense.
Forced into prostitution, she comes to hate Bruno while he’s becoming more drawn to her big-eyed innocent beauty. Ewa’s salvation arrives in the form of Bruno’s cousin, a stage magician billed as Orlando (Jeremy Renner),
At this point, the story turns into a love triangle.
Who will wind up with Ewa, the good bad guy or the bad good guy?
This period melodrama from writer/director James Gray was originally titled “Low Life,” a description of the situation that has ensnared our heroine. This is Gray’s fifth film, and his fourth featuring Joaquin Phoenix (who was cast in “The Yards,” “We Own The Night,” “Two Lovers”).
Gray’s meticulous vision captures the drab, sepia-toned cityscape of New York City of the ’20s -- the brick-front tenements, crowded streets, the sleazy burlesque theater. With its damsel in distress, lustful villain, and chisel-chin leading man, this might have been a movie by D.W. Griffith starring Lillian Gish.
Even the title harkens back to those earlier days. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp starred in a same-named film (“The Immigrant,” 1917).
And like those movies of yore, the stereotypical characters are a tad exaggerated. Noble and self-sacrificing, Ewa is a little too good to be true. The pimp Bruno is a mite too malevolent for a man supposedly in love. And the Houdini-like Orlando is not an entirely convincing rescuer.
All that aside, Marion Cotillard is the draw here, perhaps her best performance since that Academy-Award turn as Edith Piaf. She can do more with her eyes than most actresses can with a steam trunk of shtick.