The Immigrant is more movie than 2014's prepared for

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard star in The Immigrant
Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard star in The Immigrant
The Weinstein Company

In 2014, any filmmaker who has a feel, and a flair, for romantic melodrama is doomed, so what chance does a period melodrama like James Gray's The Immigrant have?

Gray, the 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. There's no other movie on the landscape like it, which is perhaps why the Weinstein Co. has relegated it to a very small limited release: In today's movie-marketing climate, The Immigrant probably has too much feeling for its own good. But anyone who cares about movies 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 and allowed, once again, to move, think, and feel.

Cotillard's Ewa has just made the crossing to the United States with her sickly sister, who's whisked away by the authorities upon arrival and detained indefinitely in an Ellis Island hospital. Ewa almost doesn't make it into the country herself: An immigration bureaucrat, having heard reports of her "low morals" aboard the ship, informs her that women of her ilk aren't welcome here. Just then, like a knight in a bowler and a celluloid collar, Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno steps in: He gives Ewa a place to stay and hints at possible employment. It turns out Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and with half-courtly, half-cagey seductiveness, he persuades Ewa that the surest way for her to earn the money to free her sister is to join his bevy of salacious beauties. Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied; her radiance is intertwined with her dignity. Bruno tries to possess her, but it's his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters here read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind; scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn't the same as innocence.

Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes in an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. He does nothing by half-measures, which is one of the chief complaints filed by those who don't care for his movies, that everything he does is just too much. But the too-muchness is the point. 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 nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light. Gray and Khondji don't glamorize Ewa's situation or her living conditions, but they make them movie-beautiful, believable in a way that pleases the eye.

Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul; Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. Into this role Cotillard pours despair, anxiety, and more than a few drops of defiance. As a newcomer and a woman of little means, Ewa is at a disadvantage in this busy, indifferent world. The naked honesty of her face only makes everyone want to lie to her. But that doesn't make her the liar, and her fearlessness in the face of thieves and tricksters makes all the difference. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you're not wanted into one you can call home.

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