Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes review of The Immigrant

James Gray, darling of Cannes, delivers a ho-hum meditation on the immigrant experience.

Fri, May 24, 2013, 12:30




Directed by James Gray

In competition, 120 mon

The Cannes Film Festival — and French critics in general — have long had a strangely close relationship with James Gray. Since The Yards in 2000, every one of the American director’s films has premiered in this event, before opening to some acclaim in his homeland and shrugs in the rest of the English-speaking world.

His latest picture is not likely to change that situation. It’s a reasonably handsome affair dealing with the discontents of immigrants in the early part of the last century. But the characterisation is very slim and the narrative never really gets going.

The Immigrant feels like it’s been plucked from the first few chapters of a much longer, post-war airport novel. Marion Cotillard works hard as Ewa Cybulski, a Polish woman who arrives in Ellis Island in the aftermath of the first World War. Before she has even made it onto Manhattan, her sister — whispers of The Godfather Part II — has been sent to the infirmary with suspected TB. Ewa ends up falling in with Bruno Weiss, an impresario and pimp, played, with all guns blazing, by Joaquin Phoenix. Later, now morally compromised and abandoned by her relatives, she gets caught up in the rivalry between Bruno and a supposedly flamboyant magician (an absurdly miscast Jeremy Renner).

Summoning up authentic period detail on a limited budget, the film is easy on the eye and infused with enough superficial quality to pass the time easily enough. But the various personalities are so thinly sketched that the picture makes no psychological sense. Bruno is little more than Phoenix in trademark neurotic-meltdown mode. Renner’s character barely registers. Ewa is never allowed to be more than a compliant victim.

If the film were the pilot for an HBO series then you would probably stay tuned for the second episode. As a standalone film, it feels like very thin stuff. Gray need not worry. He’ll almost certainly be back here in a year or so.