This is one of those great movies which opens with a symbol of hope, quickly dashes said hope then teases it’s frayed and dirty ends throughout. In the case of The Immigrant, it teases that hope through the gas lit streets of a burgeoning vaudeville and low-rent brothel. Bruno, played by Joaqin Phoenix – which should be enough said for anyone to watch this film plays the would-be savior of an immigrant woman whose sister has been detained at Ellis Island due to TB. After the classic frame of a shawl-draped dark-haired woman looking over the bow of a raggedy ship at the bright and domineering Statue of Liberty, we are quickly swept into the cramped and damp processing line inside the immigration center. A bit of forshadowing takes place as Ewa Cybulska – Marion Cotillard, or Geeks like me know her as Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Miranda in The Dark Knight Rises – warns her sister to cough quietly or not at all. It is a tip for the new world, don’t show your weaknesses. The sister is taken to an infirmary for an indeterminate period of time.
From amongst the dark overcoats in the waiting area springs the spider. Bruno feels the subtle and nuanced twang of a silken web, and recognizes fresh prey, bribes a guard and pulls the remaining fly from the line and takes her home. We immediately trust Bruno the way Ewa trusts him, barely at all. She sleeps with a razor. We quickly learn what Bruno’s trade is. His trade is in skin. He leans out the window the next morning, and like a pigeon clapper awakens his “doves” across the courtyard and they respond in turn. Beautifully haggard woman moan and groan there responses through half-open and closeline connected windows, across Bruno’s web. He begs them to get ready for the day. They confide in Ewa, during an instance of faux intimacy and sisterhood in which they take her to their bosoms and bathe her, washing off the dirt and in a way baptizing her into their order. The tell her in order to make enough money to bribe her sister’s way out of the infirmary on Ellis Iisland, there will be a lot of sewing of costumes to do, “or a lot of fuc*ing.” admits one of the doves. This secondary money making talent was rumored on the immigrant ship on the way over. It becomes her primary job when the effeminite and slight son of a wealthy man askes Bruno for the gentle Ewa to make a man of the boy. Very drunk and very desperate, Ewa reaches for the boy and they both recieve an initiation. The Immigrant spares us from any sexual explicitness. We know what prostitutes do. It instead focuses on the emotional toll and downhill slide these characters undertake.
There is never a lure of glamour. Ewa’s existence sees small glimpses of redemption. We take hold of the American Dream for another brief moment as she finds the aunt and uncle whom were supposed to have sponsored her stay in the first place, but had dubiously disappeared according to immigration officers. It’s not Ewa’s new foray into stage burlesque – where she assumes the role of “Lady Liberty” ironically to a crowd of crude american men – which makes her uncle kick her out in the morning, it is a rumor of Ewa’s “woman of low morals” from the boat which threatens the good polish businessman’s reputation and becomes grounds for the eviction. She winds up back in the Immigration dormitory. The magician act on Ellis Island is headed by the levitating Orlando the Magician – actually Bruno’s cousin Emil, in a Dickensian melodramatic fashion – played by Jeremy Renner ( Yes, Hawkeye). They begin to attract back in NY when Bruno once again buys her way out of the island. We suspect it was he who sent the immigration guards to the aunts and uncle’s as well, hence no mention of the current job. She and Bruno are surprised – albeit differently – when Orlando is hired at the same theater as Bruno’s skin show and prostitution front. It ends badly.
Now betrayed by her own family and having run away from Bruno and returned to be caught in the middle of a romance triangle, Ewa begins to find strength and simultaneously accepts her position, though holding out hope of reuniting with her sister. We learn that Bruno’s cruelty is his ability to love, and he is in love with Ewa, as is his trickster cousin.This ends badly. The Immigrant gives us scant characters to trust. Emil/ Orlando tempts us to believe he is the savior, but his trade is trickery and he has a more sordid past. Ewa has a redeemable quest but is willing to prostitute, eventually taking on the stage – eventually a walking tunnel in Central Park – moniker of one of the wayward daughter’s of NY’s finest family. Even the sisterhood of the call girls, who may bathe and watch out for one another, proves Brutus to Ewa’s Ceasar.
Framed in a sepia stained story of Ellis Island and early 20th century NY, the conflict and characters could have happened anywhere at anytime. When it came down to it it was another prostitute who commits betrayal. Bruno, although initially, hiding his intentions and posing as a benevolent benefactor, seemed to have been the most honest. His damnable traits kept him alive, his saving grace was almost his fatal flaw.
In the end the duality of our heroine, and of our villain is expressed explicitly. And then it is beautifully depicted in the duality of the final powerful scene. The movie ends as it begins, damn-near exactly. And it is my birth-state of NJ which becomes the promise land.This is a must-watch.