The 49th Chicago Film Festival, the oldest film festival in North America, opened Thursday night with Director James Gray’s (“Two Lovers,” “We Own the Night”) film “The Immigrant.” Set in 1921 New York City, the film follows Polish Immigrant Ewa Cybrilski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister, Magda as they arrive at Ellis Island.
Magda is ill (tuberculosis) so she is separated from Ewa and charges of “low morals” are lodged against Ewa because of her behavior during the ship’s journey to America (a charge she denies). Ewa is put line to be deported and Magda must go to the infirmary for 6 months. (Later, we learn that Joaquin Phoenix is actually responsible for Ewa’s plight.)
Ewa was supposed to have been met by her aunt and uncle. When they do not appear, Ewa is desperate and destitute. Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) appears, claiming to be from Travelers’ Aide. He offers to assist Ewa and help her wait out the six months that Magda will be quarantined in the infirmary on Ellis Island.
Taking advantage of Ewa’s situation (“You’re desperate. We’ve all been desperate”), Bruno (Joaquin) forces Ewa into prostitution. She is mortified at finding herself onstage in a seedy burlesque joint called Bandit’s Roost Tart. The girls in the Bandits’ Roost, including second lead Dagmara Dominczyk (Belva; in real life, Mrs. Patrick Wilson), who was present in Chicago, do much more than just dance. Ewa’s situation goes from bad to worse, as she tries to ward off Bruno’s affectionate advances.
Into this mix comes Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s cousin Emil. Emil has a bad habit of stealing away the Bruno’s girlfriends, so his reappearance is not welcome.
The recreation of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island was exceptionally good. Marion Cotillard is very appealing as the downtrodden Ewa. Joaquin is his usual intense self. Some of the plot points do seem slightly repetitious. For me, personally, Jeremy Renner as a magician, prancing around in guy liner, was a waste of one of filmdom’s best current macho men (“The Hurt Locker”). His part seemed truncated, somehow, as though he were a superfluous character, when the eternal triangle should have remained a major plot point for far longer and, hopefully, have yielded more than one chaste kiss. I hadn’t seen that much obvious eye-liner on a man in a movie or television show since Adam Lambert appeared on “American Idol.”
Written by director James Gray and co-writer Ric Menello, the film plays like the old-fashioned melodrama it is, right down to the burlesque acts and the amazing recreation of 1921 Manhattan. Costumes, too, (Patricia Norris, costumer) were part of the appeal of this period piece.
Prior to the showing of the film, Director James Gray commented on how well the film fit in with the majestic Chicago Theater, one of the truly great ornate theaters still open in America. He spoke briefly of his love for Chicago, saying, “I don’t get out a lot” (Gray is a Queens native). Festival Director Michael Kutza also addressed the half-full theater, dedicating this year’s films to recently-deceased film critic Roger Ebert, whose wife, Chaz, was present and spoke.
The Weinstein Brothers are distributing the film, and Gray is gearing up to direct a sci-fi epic (“To the Stars”) in mid-2014.