Archive for May, 2014

Give me your tired, your poor, your gorgeous

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

I remember an early David Letterman show where he recruited a dentist to review some current movie, and the dentist only talked about the actors’ teeth. That’s how I’m looking at The Immigrant—as a story of immigration. That’s why I went to see it—when I see so few movies these days—and I’m glad I did. But my focus was also a source of dissatisfaction, because to some degree the story of immigration felt like a backdrop, especially at first, when the score swells to fill the Guastavino arches of Ellis Island’s Registry Room.

It’s 1921, and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister are newly arrived from Poland, where they have no family left. It has been a cruel trip, and her sister has an ominous cough. In no time the sister has been whisked off to the infirmary and Ewa is told that due to her lack of money and rumored low morals, she will be deported. Their aunt and uncle are nowhere to be found. Frantic, she accepts the spurious custody of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who runs a girlie show, and tries to safeguard her body while seeking a way to get her sister off the island—either through Bruno or his rival and cousin, the magician Emil (Jeremy Renner). Emotions run high, and one unfortunate event leads to another.

I liked the period feel, Ellis Island, the tenements, Central Park. And the film does a good job of underlining what a risk steerage-level immigrants were taking, especially women on their own. It was easy to understand why going back was not an option for Ewa and her sister. But for me, with my immigrant-experience focus, the problem is that Ewa’s such an exception: English-speaking and beautiful. Her desirability, besides her devotion to her sister, is what the drama revolves around. I couldn’t help wanting to know more about everyone else—the regular arrivals. While I applaud director James Gray for telling a story that is not what you might expect, it’s not a story that would have held much interest for me had it not concerned an immigrant. (And I must admit, as a public health student, I wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the idea that she should break her tubercular sister out of quarantine.)

So go for the performances, the atmosphere, the melodrama, and maybe the feeling of loneliness these new arrivals convey. Don’t expect revelations of what it was like for your ancestors. As for the teeth . . . I didn’t notice them.