The 1920’s were the culmination of the greatest wave of immigration in American history in which more than 25 million people arrived, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, to escape the aftermath of the Great War and its resulting poverty and oppression, or simply to embrace the promise of the “American Dream.” Many of these immigrants traveled in steerage and third class and were subject to crowded and unsanitary conditions aboard ships and an intrusive medical and legal interrogation when they arrived by ferry or barge at Ellis Island. By 1920, 42% of New Yorkers were foreign-born, most clustering in ethnic communities such as the Lower East Side.
What they faced were crowded tenements, disease, low-paying jobs, and a language they could not speak — obstacles that made them targets for con men and gangsters. As a result, it is estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of new immigrants arriving after the war eventually returned to their countries of origin. This struggle for survival is painfully depicted in James Gray’s masterful The Immigrant, the story of a devoutly Catholic Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her fall from grace, dictated by her desire to reunite with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is detained at Ellis Island, suspected of having tuberculosis.
Declared a woman of “low morals” by the ship’s captain and marked for deportation, Ewa is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), the master of ceremonies at The Bandit’s Roost, a vaudeville theater that employs mostly young foreign girls who escaped from the War, in reality, a front for prostitution. Bruno pays off the corrupt officials at Ellis Island and gives Ewa a place to stay but recruits her into working for him with the promise that the money she earns will go to help pay for her sister’s medical expenses. He is charming and seems to care for Ewa, who is grateful to her benefactor but refuses his advances and tells him (with sufficient reason) that she does not trust him.
After she agrees to help a teenager become more “manly,” Ewa flees to Brooklyn to seek the support of her aunt and uncle but is rejected by her fearful uncle who heard reports of her alleged immoral behavior aboard the ship and is taken back to Ellis Island. There she listens to a concert by the famous tenor Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja) and watches as a magician, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), performs a levitation act. When Orlando falls for Ewa, Bruno is threatened but saves her once again from deportation and she agrees to work as a prostitute if she can earn more money. Though we listen to Ewa’s self-deprecation in the oppressive darkness of a confessional, little is shown of her actual “work” and, as a result, it is not easy to relate to her feelings of degradation.
After a confrontation with the club’s owner ends badly, the slick Bruno takes to the streets where he parades his girls in Central Park, exhibiting them to wealthy onlookers, while pretending that they are daughters of millionaires, but a confrontation with Orlando leads to unforeseen consequences. While both Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard deliver memorable performances, it is Gray’s skill in characterization that makes The Immigrant a rich and emotionally honest experience.
Bound together by mutual need, the principal characters are not stereotypes, but three-dimensional human beings who exhibit a range of feelings including a rare capacity for forgiveness. While The Immigrant can be described as a period piece which evokes a specific time and place in American history, like its complex characters, it is more a commentary about the contradictory nature that lies at the core of the American Dream, an elusive mixture of idealistic beauty and harsh reality. Ewa, resilient but no longer naïve, is compelled to dream another dream and try to piece together a life out of the ruins of the old one.