**1/2 (out of four)
Less than two years ago, Joaquin Phoenix starred in a movie that opened with a shot of water—the wake of a boat. Paul Thomas Anderson’s challenging masterpiece “The Master” offered not just extraordinary performances but a fascinating examination of guidance, rebellion and so much more. It was the best movie of 2012.
Affecting but undeserving of the “masterpiece” tag some have tossed its way , “The Immigrant” also stars Phoenix and also involves water in its opening, to much different effect. Directed and co-written by James Gray (the solid “Two Lovers,” the weak “We Own the Night”), the film begins by looking over water to the back of the Statue of Liberty. It’s 1921 at New York’s Ellis Island, and the image is a profound summary of how quickly the sense of promise and welcome vanished for many new arrivals in the United States. That is, if they ever felt welcome at all.
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) certainly doesn’t. The ship’s manifest claims she has “low morals,” threatening to have the Polish woman sent back to her native land not long after being separated from her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Ewa briefly discovers a friendly face in Bruno (Phoenix), whose offer of help makes no mention of his plan to add Ewa to his roster of prostitutes. She has few options until she meets Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), who performs under the less-than-astounding moniker Orlando the Magician. His fondness comes only from physical attraction, much like the routine, predictable affection Bruno develops for a woman he does little to protect.
So “The Immigrant,” the opening night feature at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival, eventually becomes a dry love triangle planted on top of Ewa’s far more valid experience. While Phoenix and Renner struggle to make more of their underwritten roles, Cotillard is fantastic. The Oscar winner (“La Vie En Rose”) showcases Ewa as a strong woman hanging on to shreds of power while falling victim to those with more. So it’s unfortunate that Gray, lacking the eye to add insight to a terrible part of American history, relies on so many stock characters and predictable developments.
Many themes explored in “The Immigrant” are anything but solved nearly 100 years later, but a structure comparing the past and present would better acknowledge what has or hasn’t changed. Instead, the film movingly and not-always-convincingly recognizes well-explored truths about the land of opportunity, a melting pot where many have been cooked.
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