James Gray turns his meticulous eye to the melting pot of New York via Ellis Island for his fifth film, The Immigrant.
Set in 1921, it opens with a shot of the Statue of Liberty, beacon of hopes and dreams, then jettisons the poster image in favour of the mean streets of Manhattan where so many ambitions were trampled underfoot.
Not too mean, mind: Gray is here working in classical mode, his lush, carefully orchestrated images laid out with near-somnolent restraint; any violence and degradation, meanwhile, is kept politely off-screen, resulting in a self-consciously handsome melodrama that’s both sanitised and soporific.
The titular protagonist is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a Pole who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan).
Immediately split up – Magda has tuberculosis and must remain in quarantine – Ewa is herself saved from being refused entry by the suspiciously helpful Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the owner of a burlesque club who has an eye for ‘talent’.
From there the film plays out like a peculiarly uninvolving Americanised version of a ‘50s Japanese melodrama, with Ewa suffering exquisitely, and with great dignity, as she’s forced to prostitute herself to survive.
Rather outlandishly, her one hope of redemption comes in the form of Jeremy Renner’s debonair magician, Orlando, who just happens to be Bruno’s cousin and who sports a pencil-thin ‘tache we can only hope he brings to Hawkeye in Avengers 2.
Shot for $16m – a pittance compared to most US movies boasting anything like this ambition – The Immigrant is a contained affair, favouring interiors, medium-shots and close-ups to the scope and sweep of, say, The Godfather: Part II or Once Upon A Time In America.
There’s no stinting on the scrupulously fetching visuals of Darius Khondji, however, the drama painted in rich, dark hues with tints of sepia. It’s a good job too – so slow-moving is the (in)action, viewers will have plenty of time to luxuriate.
Of the trio of star performances, Cotillard comes off best, off-setting Phoenix’s decision to portray Bruno as locked-up and awkward with just her soft, haunted eyes. Renner’s star-quality is in evidence but Orlando is a role that will slip down his CV.
Given his own Russian-Jewish descent and a return to working-class characters and the theme of family that branches through his body of work (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers), The Immigrant is likely a personal film for Gray.
That it’s passion so rarely shows beneath the polished surface, with a syrupy orchestral score left to communicate emotions, is its biggest disappointment.