There are some settings that don’t quite work with a soft, romantic approach. There’s no romanticizing child labor or human trafficking or abject poverty. James Gray’s The Immigrant shows there’s also no romanticizing prostitution in New York City in 1921. Gray attempts to spin a complicated love triangle though an elegant web, but two of the three main characters get stuck in mushy, bland roles despite the best efforts of the actors. What’s meant to carry an air of tragedy, damnation, and the hint of redemption ultimately comes off as silly due to Gray’s misguided approach.
Eva (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) have come from Poland to make a new life in America, but their troubles begin before they can even leave Ellis Island. Magda lands in the infirmary because the doctors believe she has lung disease, and Eva is likely to be deported because she was labeled a woman of ill repute for an unknown act on the ship to America. All seems hopeless for Eva until Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) strolls into her life, and is able to get her out of detention as well as provide the promise of work. However, his scheming leads her to become a prostitute in his employ, and she can’t leave because she needs the money to rescue her sister. However, a glimmer of kindness arrives in the form of the charming Emile (Jeremy Renner), a magician who falls for Eva, which causes Bruno to become exceedingly jealous.
The Immigrant provides a compelling beginning as we see Eva led like a little lost lamb through the path Bruno has provided for all of his stable of girls. Eva is by no means stupid, and as she quickly becomes wise to Bruno’s game, she tries to resist only to have her weak spot repeatedly exploited: she has to rescue Magda. Eventually, it becomes tiresome to hear variations on “I have to help my seester,” and her single-minded devotion, while admirable, wears away at anything interesting about the character. She’s no longer a part of the prostitution system nor is she a rebel against it. She’s nothing other than a delicate flower to be swept back and forth by her self-loathing, her feelings for Emile, and her contempt for Bruno.
Emile also offers up an intriguing aspect of the story by providing the “White Knight” role, and Gray offering the twist of Emile only making things worse because Bruno stands in the way. But like Eva’s need for her sister, Bruno and Emile’s rivalry for Eva’s affection becomes tiresome, especially since Emile is a bit of a bland character, and Eva’s appeal doesn’t extend past her looks. Renner and Cotillard do their best to provide some texture to their characters, but ultimately he’s the pure-hearted charmer and she’s the sad innocent.
Bruno is the only character to have a moderately fascinating arc since he asks the audience if someone who does something utterly despicable—tricking naïve young girls and leading them into lives of prostitution—can find any hope of redemption if he falls in love with one of the girls he betrayed. Phoenix, who has never had any trouble conjuring a mix of pity and revulsion from an audience, doesn’t let us off the hook when considering the nobleness of Bruno’s actions as he tries to show his love for Eva. If redemption is possible for Bruno, it comes from the viewer’s appraisal rather than Gray and Phoenix forcing a firm conclusion.
However, a multidimensional character like Bruno almost seems out of place in the hazy, soft-focus world of The Immigrant. Chris Spelman’s score is lovely, and Darius Khondji’s cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a comforting, cozy approach, and perhaps Gray meant to impress upon us the juxtaposition between Eva’s ideal America and the reality of her life as an immigrant. Unfortunately, Gray’s approach ends up undermining his already-lightweight story. Storytellers aren’t required to be historically faithful, but we can’t believe in the tragedy of Eva’s forced prostitution when it’s presented as nothing more than a bummer with pretty visuals.
The Immigrant provides an almost childish love story in a world that is undoubtedly adult. Bruno and Emile may be grown men with weapons, but their devotion to Eva doesn’t make their actions feel any less immature. Eva almost seems out of the equation because her life doesn’t feel tragic as much as it’s unfortunate. Fate isn’t against her; she’s just unlucky. Gray deserves credit for trying to craft an intimate story through his direction, but the script he co-wrote with Richard Menello seems as lost and empty as its heroine.