James Gray’s The Immigrant has one truly magical moment: a performance by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso for the poor souls stuck in limbo on Ellis Island. His voice soars and fills the space of the sparse room, and at once the world is stunningly, astonishingly alive with sublime music. The setting and performer are so marvelously incongruous (it’s a recreation of an actual historical event), and the unanticipated event provides an unexpected of burst of the transcendent that cuts through the thick melancholy and gloom of this tale of woe.
According to Gray, The Immigrant is his attempt to capture something of opera’s blistering sincerity and emotional resonance (it was inspired by Puccini’s Suor Angelica). Gray certainly succeeds in capturing opera’s earnestness. The Immigrant delivers old-fashioned melodrama (there’s a touch of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables here in its protagonist’s beatific suffering and in the film’s final, surprisingly merciful moments) with an admirably straight face. If only The Immigrant had some real passion.
While the story centers on the seedy underbelly of New York in 1921, the reality of its period is sublimated beneath restrained, tasteful beauty: Gray’s ornate vision is, essentially, romantic, and he has little interest in getting his hands dirty or giving its more brutal content raw immediacy. His direction is ever at a remove from the events on screen, completely unwilling to break from its stately manner to surprise or startle. The Immigrant‘s parade of prostitutes seems positively demure in the golden-glow of Darius Khondji’s cinematography (which frequently suggests the aged film), and Chris Spelman’s score accentuates the proceedings with quotes from notable opera scores by Puccini and Wagner. But even Spelman’s score tones down the emotional bombast muted. It’s as though Gray is so petrified of tipping into sensationalism that he embalmed the film.
Opera, after all, thrives on its expressiveness: it’s sincere, but bold and immediate, interested in the vast emotional valleys of passion and hate, love and desire. The somewhat aimless script certainly tries to locate these peaks, but never directs its characters well enough to make these moments resonate. It’s evident from the film’s conclusion (which, to its credit, features one of cinema’s most magnificent shots, and one for which Khondji deserves an Oscar nomination) that what Gray is hoping to achieve a sense of of spiritual transcendence in the wake of unrelenting grief, but he never finds the right road to get there.
Perhaps, with a stronger script and some different direction, the film’s central trio of performers (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) might have balanced out Gray’s reserved aesthetic approach. The script only seriously begins to adopt its more melodramatic form about halfway through the film, as the film’s victimized, desperate protagonist, Ewa, finds herself caught between two cousins, Bruno and Emil, both manipulators who offer false promises of hope to Ewa. It’s a dynamic that is not only insufficently balanced, but rushed.
Of the three, Phoenix’s performance seems the most like a miscalculation. Phoenix invests Bruno, Ewa’s manipulative pimp, with all the manic energy of his performance in The Master, but the role of Bruno actually demands for something more delicate and nuanced. His earliest scenes, where he strikes an appropriate balance of charm and menace, are the most promising, but the script unfortunately shifts Bruno from manipulator to madman. Released from his constraints, Phoenix energy essentially steamrolls over the character, and so when we get to the finale, which demands so much precision from Phoenix, the character is awash in a sea of mannerisms and grunts that obscures, rather than clarifies, the character’s complexity and emotional entanglement.
As Bruno’s cousin, Emil, Renner is the film’s most charismatic presence, a charming rogue with a a career as a touring magician. For the dominant amount of his screentime, the film positions him as the kinder, more viable love interest to Phoenix’s Bruno (his introduction coincides with Caruso’s performance at Ellis Island, signalling the hope he represents). His courtship of Ewa plays out with a tedious inevitability. Only in his final scene does the film effectively move past the bullet-points of their relationship and reveal a dark undercurrent of sadism running beneath his boyish exterior. It’s too little, too late, though, and rather than play with that tension, the film abruptly sidelines him.
Then there’s Marion Cotillard, who, as Ewa, continually modulates between wide-eyed anguish and cold determination as Ewa suffers in hopes of freeing of her sister, who is effectively imprisoned on Ellis Island immediately after their arrival, Gray seems rarely interested in Ewa as a person beyond these tragic circumstances, with Khondji’s lens continually framing her as an unearthly icon of suffering. The film offers too few glimpses of the Ewa who existed before this tragedy, of an Ewa with different dreams and pleasures. Of all the film’s failings, this is perhaps its most unfortunate. Only in seeing Ewa as a person beyond her immediate struggle can we truly appreciate the depths of her anguish. If The Immigrant is, as Gray claims, “a verismo opera written for an actress,” it’s one that never gives its lead actress an aria.