The long journey from the shores of France to American homes is now over for The Immigrant, James Gray’s magnificent period drama that had a theatrical life nearly as tumultuous as its fictional heroine’s. Premiering to festival plaudits nearly a year before making it to North America, The Immigrant went from thoroughbred awards horse to shuffled-off afterthought in the time between Cannes 2013, and a 2014 wide release. Preceding the film’s new Blu-Ray transfer (announced in February to the surprise and relief of many) is a trailer for The Imitation Game, which The Weinstein Company put its best awards campaign muscle behind. The preview helps to illuminate what made The Immigrant – a film with a surface so Oscar-ready it’s golden-hued – a prestige season runt.
Whereas The Imitation Game was snappy, virtuoso, and built for maximum efficiency, The Immigrant is reserved, melodramatic, and abstruse. It’s an examination of faith and redemption, but offers few assuring answers to questions of either. Its story is one of the American Dream, but told through a personal relationship that conveys operatic emotion through small actions instead of grand gestures and statements. In other words, you can’t really blame anyone at TWC for looking at The Immigrant, and wondering what happened to the surefire awards contender they thought they’d financed.
Indeed, an initial viewing of The Immigrant can very easily lead one into agreeing that there’s something “off” about it. Despite the heavyweight lineup, the casting doesn’t appear quite right for the material. Gray’s direction emphasizes mise-en-scène just as much as it does performance. So why cast such non-period-looking performers as Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, who don’t seem to belong to the post-war New York of the film’s setting? With golden, natural tones making up the film’s sumptuous palette, it’s as if the performers were flash frozen in amber, the modern leads having been encased by decidedly un-modern trappings.
Cotillard plays Ewa, a young woman that emigrates from Poland during the bitter New York winter of 1923. Separated from her ill sister by the health officials of Ellis Island, Ewa is taken under the wing of Bruno (Phoenix), a pimp who’s more duplicitous than he is bright. Abandoned by her relatives and with nowhere else to turn, Ewa is forced into prostitution by Bruno, with the pair’s relationship developing unexpected contours as Ewa struggles to pay for her sister’s treatment.
Cotillard is exceptional here, and pairs brilliantly with Phoenix. The blustering, pathetic Bruno plays off the silent stoicism of Ewa like wind on a chime. Gray’s spare dialogue makes Cotillard’s work in particular a feat of physical specificity, but it also draws your eyes to the biggest parts of The Immigrant that seem out of place. Yet, that disconnect is part of a novel texture Gray is applying to the material, which in other hands would have turned The Immigrant into the melodramatic potboiler the studio may have originally wanted.
When The Immigrant feels artificial it’s often intentionally so. Gray’s vision of ‘20s Manhattan is anything but rose-tinted. Though inspired by public record and stories his own grandparents told him of coming to America, Gray’s evaluation of the time has 21st century distance. A hardscrabble, cutthroat existence waits beyond Lady Liberty, one where authorities are corrupted by meager power and lechery, their wickedness emboldened by hate for the immigrant peoples they themselves were a part of not long ago. If the fictional world of The Immigrant doesn’t seem quite right, it’s because there may not have been anything quite right about the real one to begin with.
The rich cinematography of Darius Khondji makes the hardships of Ewa beautiful to behold, even as The Immigrant weighs heavier and heavier as it goes. But it’s in these tests that The Immigrant finds stirring moments of compassion. Renner, playing a roguish magician, is introduced performing for huddled masses due for deportation. It’s a despairing situation that finds joy and life in the act of, well, acting. Ewa’s story is a survivor’s story, but it’s also one where the truth of who someone is doesn’t often match the illusion of who they become to survive.
Candidly speaking on art theory, his own craft, and the inspirations for the film, Gray’s audio commentary track is a must for those swept up by The Immigrant’s mystique. Whether charmingly imitating his cast and crew as he tells an anecdote, or recounting the personal stories that inspired moments of the film, Gray’s commentary adds further depth to the grounded feel of The Immigrant, even as he draws back the curtain. There’s a great deal to be learned here, whether it’s about The Immigrant itself, or filmmaking generalities like when and when not to rip-off Fellini.
Unfortunately, that commentary is about the only feature of note to be found on the Blu-Ray release. A 3-minute featurette entitled “The Visual Inspiration of The Immigrant” works as advertised, though it’s a paltry tribute to a film with visual splendor of this magnitude. Beyond that, a theatrical trailer is the only other means by which fans can enhance their appreciation for The Immigrant, other than simply watching the film again. Seems even in home release, The Immigrant doesn’t get the support it deserves, but the very existence of the Blu-Ray is no small victory for cinephiles. A thin features package, like a botched original release, is the sort of detail that likely won’t factor heavily into The Immigrant’s long-term legacy as an impeccably made and emotionally enveloping drama.
The Immigrant's handsome Blu-Ray transfer should be welcomed with open arms, even if there's little meat on the bone here for fans of special features.