DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Director James Gray has made four features since his first film, 1994's "Little Odessa," and all four have starred Joaquin Phoenix. There was "The Yards," "We Own the Night," and "Two Lovers." And now the actor costars as a shady businessman in Gray's new movie, "The Immigrant." It's a period piece that also features Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman trying to free her sister from the infirmary at Ellis Island. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Marion Cotillard is now the best leading film actress in the world and she's close to her peak in James Gray's "The Immigrant." She plays the title character, a young Polish woman named Eva who arrives at New York's Ellis Island in 1921 alongside her sister Magda. Their entry is a disaster. Magda has a bad cough and gets promptly quarantined.
Then rumors reach officials that Eva is a woman of loose morals who sold her body on the ship. Eva vigorously disputes the charge but from the way she quivers, obviously traumatized, we know that something happened on that voyage. A lifeline of sorts arrives via Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno Weiss, a Jewish businessman in an expensive suit.
He immediately zeroes in on Eva in the queue for deportation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMIGRANT")
JOANQUIN PHOENIX: (as Bruno) What about her?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Liable to become public charge. She arrived with her sister who was quarantined for lung disease.
PHOENIX: (as Bruno) Best of luck to you.
MARION COTILLARD: (as Eva) Sir, sir. Can you help me?
PHOENIX: (as Bruno) Ma'am, you are in the exclusion line.
COTILLARD: (as Eva) Yes.
PHOENIX: (as Bruno) Did they explain to you what that meant?
COTILLARD: (as Eva) Yes, yes.
PHOENIX: (as Bruno) They're sending you back.
COTILLARD: (as Eva) No, no, no. I can work. You know these man. You talk to them.
PHOENIX: (as Bruno) You've already been processed. Their decision's been rendered. There's very little I can do.
COTILLARD: (as Eva) Please. Please.
EDELSTEIN: What a courtly fellow Bruno seems to be. But you know from how he overdoes his sympathy he has ulterior motives. After bribing a guard, Bruno leads Eva to New York's Lower East Side, where he keeps a stable of immigrant women for sewing, performing at a racy vaudeville theater, and one other job - three guesses what that is.
He's not so nice a man after all, and Eva is visibly sickened. But selling herself looks to be the only way she'll make enough to free her sister from Ellis Island. "The Immigrant" looks gorgeous. Darius Khondji's sepia-toned cinematography evokes photographs of the period, but if images are suitable for framing, the feel of the movie is messy, modern, psychological.
It's thick with melancholy and moral ambivalence. Mood is what director Gray does best. This is his fifth feature and fourth collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who does nothing easy. His Bruno is too conflicted to be a stereotypical Fagin-like operator. He gets righteously indignant when called on his duplicity.
He rages. He snivels. And he's clearly smitten with Eva. Marion Cotillard's performance is more controlled, but her emotions are, if anything, more vivid. Eva is not a passive ingenue. She's angry and harsh, but no matter how much she hardens her features, her mask keeps slipping. You see her sadness in her liquid eyes, in a smile at once superior and forlorn.
Cotillard is brilliant at showing how Eva's drive for self-preservation is at constant odds with her self-disgust. Well into "The Immigrant" we meet a third major figure, a Houdini-esque magician named Orlando, played by Jeremy Renner. He's also smitten with Eva and wastes little time in planning to take her away from her sordid milieu.
It's frankly hard to know what to make of Orlando, whose real name is Emil. He's said to be a reckless gambler and a drunk, but evinces nothing but wholesome admiration. This is the only time the movie spills over into melodrama. The confrontation between Bruno and Emil, who's actually Bruno's cousin, ends on a shocking note that doesn't feel earned.
"The Immigrant" has been the source of a semi-public battle between director Gray and the impresario and distributor Harvey Weinstein, who reportedly pressed for cuts to the nearly two hour running time. The movie is, indeed, slowly paced, but I'm damned if I know what Gray should've cut.
The scenes are meant to be grueling to show Eva fighting Bruno while Bruno fights himself. And the movie doesn't end on the upbeat Oscar-bait note that marks so many of Weinstein's prestige projects. Even when things take a turn, morally speaking, for the better, the aura of hopelessness never fully dissipates.
But some films are evocative enough to be worth the pain and at their best Gray and his alter ego Phoenix evoke Eugene O'Neill's immortal line from "A Long Day's Journey Into Night": Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people. Marion Cotillard, meanwhile, penetrates that fog like a beacon.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.