“Is it a sin for me to survive when I have done so many bad things?”
Critical buzz is a two edged sword. Depending on the mood I’m in, it can make me absolutely certain that I have to see a movie. Or, it can make me write it off as pretentious, critic fellating dreck that should be avoided at all costs. Everything about The Immigrant should have put it in that second category. Period piece about oppression. Characters with thick, Oscar chasing accents. A whole heap of terrible, terrible people, beating down the one good character for two hours. The Immigrant has the lot, but none of that got in the way of me really liking it.
It’s 1921 on Ellis Island and two Polish sisters wait to be processed by immigration so they can live with their aunt and uncle, and begin their new lives in the new world. The only problem is, one (Angela Sarafyn as Magda) has consumption and is immediately quarantined. And since the aunt and uncle are nowhere to be seen, the other sister (Marion Cotillard as Ewa) is unaccompanied by a man, and therefore seen as a probable financial strain on the state, and told she’ll be sent home. Enter Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno, a man with connections who is able to buy Ewa’s freedom.
Once indebted to Bruno, it’s not long before her promised job as a seamstress is coerced into becoming a part of his burlesque show, which itself is nothing more than a thin facade in front of his prostitution business. Desperate enough to do whatever it takes to provide enough money to maintain her sister in the Ellis Island hospital long enough for her health to improve, Ewa succumbs to Bruno’s suggestions and begins turning tricks.
One night, a new magician act appears at the theatre that’s home to Bruno’s burlesque. Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) falling in love with Ewa is complicated enough, but when it’s revealed that he’s Bruno’s cousin, things get really interesting. When Ewa manages to escape and track down her aunt and uncle, she learns it’s already too late, her desperation has already taken things too far and she can never turn back.
I didn’t remember much about the buzz when The Immigrant came out, but I did remember most of it was around Cotillard. And that makes sense, she is really amazing. But the real surprise came from Phoenix. I had no idea he was even in it until he appeared on screen, and he is at his post-The Master best. He’s a ruthless, selfish asshole who will step on anyone for his own personal gain. Until he’s not. And Phoenix makes that transformation totally real and totally believable.
The Immigrant is heavy going and, in some ways, blatant Oscar bait. But when done well, Oscar bait can really deliver. It’s one of those movies that has no rose coloured view of its period and makes you so happy to not be living in that time. It’s not the lack of conveniences and modern technology that could make life unbearable, it was the closed minded attitudes and puritanical thinking. And The Immigrant isn’t afraid to turn those up to eleven to make its point.