James Gray, director of unapologetically impassioned dramas like We Own the Night and Two Lovers, is unafraid of strong emotion; he doesn't care about looking cool. And with The Immigrant, in which Marion Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant struggling to find her place in New York in the early 1920s, he's made a picture that feels classical but also breathes. In today's movie-marketing climate, The Immigrant probably has too much feeling for its own good. But anyone who cares about what movies can be should try to see it on the big screen. It's as if the ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the tyranny of faded photographs.
A knight in a bowler and a celluloid collar, Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and he persuades Ewa to join his bevy of salacious beauties. Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face -- Cotillard's face -- is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied. Bruno tries to possess her, but it's his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind: Scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn't the same as innocence.
The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. Shot by Darius Khondji, partly on location on Ellis Island, The Immigrant is quietly glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that glow as if lit from behind by lantern light. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can morph into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you're not wanted into one you can call home.