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The Immigrant Blu-ray Review

The Immigrant (2014) movie poster The Immigrant

Theatrical Release: May 16, 2014 / Running Time: 117 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: James Gray / Writers: James Gray, Richard Menello

Cast: Marion Cotillard (Ewa Cybulska), Joaquin Phoenix (Bruno Weiss), Jeremy Renner (Orlando the Magician/Emil), Dagmara Dominczyk (Belva), Yelena Solovey (Rosie Hertz), Maja Wampuszyc (Aunt Edyta), Angela Sarafyan (Magda Cybulska), Ilia Volok (Wojtek)

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Last year, movie fans and critics took issue with the way that The Weinstein Company released Snowpiercer. The dystopian sci-fi film had plenty of action and visual effects, a healthy dose of star power, and a respected director at the helm. Critics loved the movie.
The studio, evidently, did not. When Harvey Weinstein made his characteristic demand for cuts, director Bong Joon Ho resisted, resulting in Weinstein's niche Radius-TWC label giving it a tiny theatrical release in tandem with digital downloads.

The same issue occurred more or less concurrently on The Immigrant. A lavish and epic period drama, this is the type of film you usually see released on Christmas Day and later expanding to maximize Academy Award prospects. Instead, after premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the $16 million project starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner sat on a shelf. Critics were enamored with this handsome, heartfelt production from writer-director James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night). But Weinstein had so little faith in the film that they waited a full year to release it to theaters and capped it at a 150-venue count despite some promising early business. By the time 2014's award season rolled around eight months later, The Immigrant was forgotten by many and Weinstein didn't do much to jog their memories, as they centered their campaigns on the likes of The Imitation Game and Big Eyes. Nonetheless, the movie, Cotillard's lead performance in it, and its cinematography did get recognized with nominations from some smaller awards shows, including the Independent Spirit Awards.

Still, it appeared that The Weinstein Company themselves had entirely forgotten about the film, which had turned up on Netflix's streaming service as early as July. It finally reached Blu-ray and DVD in April 2015, utilizing an 11-month theater-to-video window not frequently employed since the days of VHS.

Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) is dressed like Lady Liberty and flanked by a clown in Bruno's revue.

The Immigrant tells the story of Poland's Ewa Cybulksa (Cotillard), who arrives at Ellis Island in January of 1921 with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Exhibiting a cough, Magda gets pulled aside and quarantined for lung disease. Ewa (pronounced "Eva") is accused of having shown low morals on the transatlantic boat ride over. The New York address she gives of her aunt and uncle is said to be not valid. On the exclusion line about to be swiftly deported, Ewa is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), a businessman who sees value in the English-speaking Ewa, who is eager to work and desperate to stay in America.

Bruno takes Ewa to his Jewish neighborhood and gives her a place to sleep and bathe. A theater manager, Bruno sees in Ewa some seamstress potential. Before long, though, she's performing in the stage shows he hosts, a burlesque revue in which women strip out of clothes representing the world's different cultures. Ewa is uncomfortable with that work and even less willing to participate in Bruno's side prostitution business. But getting Magda, who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis, out of quarantine requires money and this is the only way Ewa has to make a lot of it quickly.

The threat of deportation intensifies when Ewa tracks down her aunt and uncle, only to have the uncle report her to the police for not having a permanent address. Another Bruno bribe provides further respite for Ewa, but comes after she has witnessed a performance by Orlando the Magician (Renner), Bruno's cousin whose real name is Emil. A little bit of a love triangle forms around these three, complicated by the professional and personal tensions that exist between Bruno and Emil.

Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) has his eye caught by Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), but the feeling is not mutual in James Gray's "The Immigrant."

A synopsis of The Immigrant might not catch your eye, especially if you're not drawn to historical fiction. I am not and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this tale that bears some ancestral significance to today's second, third, and fourth generation Americans. Gray, co-writer Richard Menello (with whom he also co-wrote Two Lovers), and their cast and crew do such a magnificent job of recreating a bygone era.
Turning the clocks back on New York City nearly one hundred years is an enormous undertaking, particularly on a budget as relatively modest as this film's. The financial losses endured in its limited release demonstrate that it's something of a thankless undertaking, since period films are deemed commercial poison. But there is much value and charm to this, which should have been a no-brainer for technical recognition across the board and very well might have been with different timing and treatment.

Then again, a Christmastime opening in either 2013 or 2014 would have painted this as transparent awards bait, something that invites critical cynicism no matter how worthy a film is of such accolades. The Immigrant benefits from not having those expectations and the scrutiny that comes with them.

The simplicity and efficiency to the storytelling give off the impression that some forgotten piece of classic literature is being adapted. It is not. Gray and Menello have constructed this tale from scratch, a process which gives it greater contemporary appeal and meaning, while freeing it from having to remain faithful to a text that has endured the years. The screenplay doesn't muddle itself with extraneous characters or conflict, enabling the core to remain strong and the three principal characters a healthy share of our full attentions.

Those characters are wonderfully brought to life by three of the finest actors working in film today. Taking the lion's share of screentime, Cotillard impresses thoroughly and there were few female performances in 2014 as substantial and compelling as this. That Cotillard performs some of the film in Polish of convincing authenticity, a language she learned just for this, underscores her commitment to her craft. Interestingly, it was her work in Foreign Language Film nominee Two Days, One Night instead that gave her any chance at cracking last year's Oscar race.

Since his retirement hoax, no one has questioned Phoenix's commitment to film acting, but he displays it once again here in a character whose intentions and nobility you are consistently re-evaluating. In far fewer scenes than the other two, Renner demonstrates that he hasn't been compromised by work in popcorn entertainment like The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The veracity of his breakout turn in The Hurt Locker remains intact even as he transforms himself into a charismatic 1920s illusionist whose act plays much better in an immigration detention center than a bawdy gentleman's club.

The Immigrant Blu-ray Disc cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: April 7, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $34.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video


In voting for the Online Film Critics Society awards last December, I gave The Immigrant good scores in every category in which it was in play. But I had the most hope for it competing for the Best Cinematography award, because veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji -- David Fincher's original go-to DP and more recently a repeat Woody Allen collaborator -- does wondrous things here. His gold-tinted 2.40:1 imagery delights in the Blu-ray's perfect transfer. Countless beautiful compositions, from the appropriate opening shot of the Statue of Liberty to the heartbreaking organic closing split-screen, take your breath away. The vibrant hues both suit the material just right and spare it of the blandness that often plague films set in this period.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack won't leave as strong an impression on you, but it doesn't inspire any complaints and does enhance a few moments with directionality. Polish dialogue is fittingly translated by burned-in subtitles.

Lewis Hine Ellis Island photographs that inspired the look of "The Immigrant" are shown. The Immigrant's theatrical trailer touts the film with high critical acclaim.


The Blu-ray's extras begin with an audio commentary by writer/director James Gray. He engages with a wide variety of interesting topics, including filming at the real Ellis Island and other New York locales,

the real experiences of his Russian immigrant grandparents that he drew upon, fortuitous filmmaking mistakes, writing the film for Cotillard and Phoenix, capitalizing on their distant acting styles, and different techniques taken to achieve the results. Recounting creative clashes with Cotillard and his DP (both of whom he impersonates), addressing criticisms of some viewers, and making his immense knowledge of cinema crystal clear, Gray provides an unusually rewarding track for a film we learn is quite personal for him.

The slightly longer of two short HD video bonuses is "The Visual Inspiration of The Immigrant" (2:54), which credits the Ellis Island photography of Lewis Hine as well as some paintings from the era as influencing Khondji's compositions. Comparisons show that acknowledgment is due.

Finally, we encounter a true rarity for a Weinstein Company disc: the theatrical trailer (2:28) for the feature presentation. It would be great if the company started making these the standard inclusion they should be (and once were). For now, I'll assume this is an isolated incident made possible by Gray.

The disc opens with trailers for The Master and The Imitation Game that are not accessible by menu.

That menu loops an ordinary montage of clips. The Blu-ray sadly doesn't let you set bookmarks or resume playback in any fashion.

The plain blue keepcase is not joined by slipcover or insert, meaning no digital copy is included with your purchase, despite Weinstein warming to that of late.

Emil (Jeremy Renner) captivates detained immigrants as Orlando the Magician.


Among the best of 2014 films you might not even have heard of, The Immigrant is a technically sumptuous and dramatically resonant drama you would be wise to see. This untimely Blu-ray puts the film's considerable cinematic splendor on display. Though it slightly underwhelms in the bonus features department, it does include one of the best solo audio commentaries I have ever heard. Check it out!

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Reviewed April 20, 2015.

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