(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Yelena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Illia Volok, Angela Sarafyan, Antoni Corone, Patrick Husted, Patrick O’Neill, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg, Matthew Humphreys, James Colby, Peter McRobbie, Susan Gardner. Directed by James Gray
It takes a certain amount of courage to make a new start in a new place. If that new place is in a new country, amplify that by hundreds and thousands, more if it’s an entirely different language spoken there. Something like 40% of all Americans had someone pass through Ellis Island at one time or another; not all of them made it through unscarred.
Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Sarafyan) have come from Poland to New York City in 1922. They can see Lady Liberty rising in the distance; beyond her, the skyline of a new world. Their new life is so close they can reach out and touch it.
But it is not to be. Magda’s cough turns out to be tuberculosis and she will need to be quarantined and likely deported afterwards. The aunt and uncle who were supposed to greet the sisters when they arrived never showed and the address that was given them doesn’t exist according to the immigration officer (Clohessy). Ewa is all alone in a strange land; she speaks English pretty well fortunately but she has nowhere to go and no money.
Fortunately there’s an advocate there for a traveler’s society to help her out. His name is Bruno Weiss (Phoenix) and he has a small apartment where she can stay. He gives her food and shelter, offering her a job at the Bandit’s Roost Theater as a seamstress. Ewa is grateful but sleeps with a weapon under her pillow just in case.
Getting Magda out of Ellis Island before being deported will be a lengthy and expensive process. Bruno knows people who can speed the process along but the money is going to be an issue. It will take far too long on what she earns sewing and mending for her to retrieve her sister, and that’s everything to her. She decides that in order to get her sister out, she’ll do anything – including dance with Bruno’s troupe who do a lot more than dance, if you get my drift.
Into this mix comes stage magician Orlando the Magnificent – who happens to be Bruno’s cousin Emil (Renner). The two are on not-so-good terms but they become worse when Emil falls for the lovely Ewa – and Bruno has done the same (which doesn’t prevent him from continuing to pimp her out). Emil urges her to leave with him for California, a more pleasant and gentle land. Bruno wants her to stay away from Emil who has a gambling problem. Ewa isn’t going anywhere without Magda. Something has to give.
James Gray has amassed a reputation for doing quality work. He isn’t the most prolific director in the business, but he prefers to work on movies he believes in and generally with Phoenix when possible (four of his five films feature the actor). In some ways he’s much more of a European director in terms of style; his films aren’t flashy nor are they fast-paced. They take their time, unfold organically like a blossom in spring and then let you immerse yourself in the depths of their beauty – or ugliness as the case may be. The films may be set here in America but they definitely have a European soul.
He wrote the movie specifically for Cotillard, an actress he admires, and she doesn’t let him down. She is mesmerizing, whether as a deer in the headlights or when she is strong as iron. Sometimes both expressions occur at once and let me tell you, that’s nothing to sneeze at. This is a character who is obstinate and strong, but tender and vulnerable at once. She’s an unusually strong female character which is less refreshing than it used to be – a good sign – but nonetheless a welcome appearance. I’m not sure that Cotillard will get any Oscar attention given that the film was released so early in the year, but this is a performance worthy of recognition none the less.
Both Phoenix and Renner are terrific actors and they do a good job. Phoenix’ role is a little bit more meaty than Renner’s who is essentially more of a dramatic element than Phoenix whose character is more central to the story, but Renner is so interesting an actor that even in a part that is very subordinate he makes it compelling even so. Phoenix takes his role and runs with it nicely. I don’t think you’ll find any movie this year with three finer actors in the lead roles and three more complex characters for them to play.
The cinematography is lush and very evocative of its era which is a good thing. We get a sense of the squalor and the desperation in the City as well as the corruption in the police and immigration departments. A beautiful soundtrack enhances the images on the screen.
This is a sumptuous movie that has not only an epic quality to it but also an intimacy that keeps it from being too cold and distant. While the story takes it’s time to unfold, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing although those of the ADHD generation might have issues with it. The pacing allows you to become fully a part of the world that Gray creates. It is a rich and compelling world, one which isn’t always pretty but one which allows you to take a moment to wonder what your own ancestors did to make things work in the new world they travelled to. This is one of those movies that really hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it deserves and while you might not have heard much about it up to now, you really do need to check this out while you still can.
REASONS TO GO: Lush and layered. Cotillard is one of the world’s finest actresses. Renner and Phoenix give fine support.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too slow-paced for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and sexual content as well as some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neither Cotillard nor Sarafyan spoke Polish. They were given approximately two months to learn the dialogue. They were coached by Wampuszyc, who plays their Aunt and is a native Polish speaker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ragtime
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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