|Left to right: Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix|
Before this review goes any further. Before a critique of the acting, story, pacing, or deeper themes, there is one thing that needs to be expressed: This is the greatest looking film of 2014. Cinematographer Darius Khondji's work excels at turning the 1920's New York into something that feels fully authentic and rich with melancholic beauty. Along with a solid wardrobe from Patricia Norris, there is so much to admire about this film's design. Even the framing of shots excellently convey multiple concepts at once, leaving a poetic aura around the film and causing meditation and nostalgia to seep into this tale of an American Dream that goes a little awry. The film's look remains unsurpassed and deserves any and all acclaim that it is eligible for. With that said, The Immigrant has a lot of other admirable features to its credit, too.
If there is one flaw to director James Grey's latest, it is the distribution model for the film. It had a momentary yet misrepresented theatrical run that left it on almost nobody's radar. It eventually landed on Netflix months later, at which point it finally began picking up steam. While this is a testament to streaming services, The Immigrant is a film that deserved so much more attention during its theatrical run, if just for the cinematography and costumes that give it rich textures and elevate the scenery into works of art. Khondji's work here cannot be underestimated. He is the true hero of the film and the sole reason that The Immigrant can earn its credit as one of the year's best. It is true that a film is only as good as its actors and script, though it also has to look and feel believable to make it fully realized.
Thankfully, everything else backs up the cinematography gorgeously. With the story focusing around Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) as she arrives with her sick sister on Ellis Island in the 20's, it quickly turns into a tale of tragedy. Her sister is taken to the hospital and Ewa is forced to perform at a burlesque club with an abusive owner named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). With the help of Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), the feeling that more can be achieved begins to take the story into new and exciting directions. With an excellent cast able to portray vulnerability at different ratios, the film's assumed novelty of 20's garb and scenery becomes an asset. The authenticity informs the performances and creates a universe full of complex characters that are trying to make it in America and succeeding at different levels.
Most of all, it is a story of triumph and hope. While the film doesn't quite have the biggest emotional impact, it does manage to present an engrossing story full of greed and guilt. Nobody is perfect and it is a story about the personal survival. Even if economics are discussed, they are fleeting compared to the deepest desires presented here. There is a need to belong to a community. There is a need to have aspirations and dream for something greater. Ewa's struggle exploits the downside of this in wonderfully nuanced ways. She rarely cries, but she always seems to be on the verge of surrender. As for Bruno, this is all just a business and he can't help Ewa with her problems no matter how hard her tried to be personal.
Of the performances, Cotillard delivers the best one. Full of nuance, she is required to observe more than emote. She watches as these great men around her get attention for their attributes. She is simply there as a spectacle with no actual investment. She wants to help her sister, that's it. She is the most selfless character in the film, and as she turns to religion for guidance, the beats begin to hit stronger. The dreams presented in the American Dream are quickly torn away to focus on the personal values. With Phoenix also turning in a charismatic performance, he comes across as a sleazy showman with dignity and weaknesses. Even then, he feels too surface compared to Cotillard, which may be intentional.
The Immigrant is a good film about the American Dream and those that come to this country to retrieve it. While there are positive sides to this, the film decides to paint a harsher reality. With solid performances by Cotillard and Phoenix, the film has a sense of purpose and while not entirely successful, at least manages to present its messages clearly and full of heart. Thanks largely to the cinematography, Grey's film is a wonderful gem that may at times be uneven, but is overall a success in making a complicated issue into a compelling story that is full of thematically rich characters and the call for what dreams everyone should actually be following in their lives.
I'll admit upfront that I came to this film rather late. I first heard about it upon initial trailer release, yet didn't immediately rush out to see it. As someone who openly loves Phoenix and Cotillard's past work, it seems a little illogical. Nonetheless, I have seen it and I like it quite a bit. I will admit that I don't love it as initial reviews have made it out to be, but it definitely has a lot of strong attributes that may continue to grow and become more perplexing as the year goes on. I don't think any of the performances are necessarily Oscar worthy, though. While Cotillard is magnetic with her struggles, it does feel like the scenery did more heavy lifting than the acting. Phoenix was too nuanced to be recognized as well, though he gets an excellent emotional beat towards the end of the film.
The Immigrant should definitely be considered for Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography. In the eight months of this year so far, no film has effectively been this attractive. Beyond the acting and script, I was impressed by the visual layout of the film. At times, it even felt like it was inspired by The Godfather: Part II with its rustic lens of Ellis Island. Even if it is much more lush than even the best film of its time, it feels like a counterpart of the 20's. Speaking as last year's winner in Best Costume Design was another 20's-set film with The Great Gatsby, it does seem rather likely that this one isn't too far behind.
I just hope that with its almost unspectacular presence in theaters that this won't keep it from having any consideration at the end of the year. So far, there hasn't been any runaway favorites for the Best Picture or subsequent categories. There's only hope that I am not paying close enough attention and that The Immigrant has been getting a lot of accolades. I don't necessarily believe that it deserves anything beyond technical and costumes, but the film is definitely striking in ways that I feel are well worth the investment. Check it out and be taken away by the beauty and mysticism present in its tale of the American Dream.
Will The Immigrant stand any chances at the Oscars? What other Best Cinematography contenders are out there? Does the lack of publicity hurt this film's chances?