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The Immigrant

Marion Cotillard is the heart and soul of this period drama, and the single biggest reason to seek it out.
By Tom Clift
September 15, 2014
By Tom Clift
September 15, 2014

Filmmaker James Gray lays the American dream bare in his reserved but affecting period drama, The Immigrant. Set in New York City just a few years after the end of the First World War, the film begins with a shot of the Statue of Liberty peering through the fog. It's an image of hope and prosperity that on reflection holds a tragic kind of irony. The Immigrant is a bleak film, at times a little cold. But thanks to the magnificent work of Gray's cast, it's difficult to forget.

Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, the immigrant of the title. Having fled war-torn Poland, she arrives on Ellis Island in search of a new life, only to face immediate deportation after her sister is quarantined with tuberculosis. Enter Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a well-connected stranger who intervenes on her behalf and arranges for her to be allowed into the city.

A partner at a seedy burlesque theatre, Bruno offers Ewa a job as a seamstress, only to quickly coerce her into dancing and prostitution. Wracked with self-loathing but desperate to survive, the one ray of hope in Ewa's new life comes in the form of Bruno's charming cousin Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who promises to spirit her away. But Bruno won't part with his favourite dove so easily, and soon his jealousy and obsession threatens to boil over into violence.

Gray could hardly have assembled a more talented trio of actors. Phoenix, of course, is magnetic as Bruno, a man who is simultaneously pitiable and vile. Although undoubtedly the villain of the piece, Gray allows Bruno genuine dimension, the kind that characters such as this are rarely given. Renner's cocksure charisma, meanwhile, lends energy and life to every scene he's in. Without him, the film might well have been too grim to bear.

That said, neither Phoenix nor Renner can hold a candle to Cotillard, who may well be one of the most gifted actresses alive. Every indignity Ewa suffers is registered in her eyes, which stare accusingly out of the sepia-tinted frame. It's a haunting performance full of vulnerability, wounded pride and quiet strength. She's the heart and soul of the picture, and the single biggest reason to seek it out.

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