Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are superb in this darkly tragic take on the American Dream

Millions of Americans can trace their ancestors first arriving in the country at Ellis Island. The Immigrant is a finely constructed portrait of a Polish woman arriving on Ellis Island in 1921, hopeful of the American Dream but quickly running into severe roadblocks on that path. It is a moving period piece of some power and hums with palpable feeling, bolstered by dynamic performances from stars Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix. Director James Gray’s movie is a richly rewarding depiction of the human condition in those times, tinged with an honesty lacking in most historical drama. The Immigrant is a drama which doesn’t forget the characters should always remain the central focus.

Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her sister come from Poland by themselves, arriving on Ellis Island with optimism despite their tragic past. Doctors at Ellis Island discover Ewa’s sister is sick, forcibly separating the two women. Facing being returned to Poland before she ever sets foot in America, Ewa is seemingly saved from that fate by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). Bruno seems a kind man at first to Ewa, promising assistance without asking for anything in return. Due to issues in her past, Ewa has a difficult time accepting help.

Since the woman has been cut off from her entire family, Bruno provides shelter and the promise of work so Ewa can pay for her sister’s medical care on Ellis Island. Ewa soon learns that Bruno runs a burlesque show in a seedy part of Manhattan, a thinly-veiled front for his ring of prostitutes to ply their trade.

Both Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix shine in their roles as tragic figures

Bruno soon pushes Ewa into prostitution, manipulating her into the sordid profession since she has few viable occupations in her new country of America. Ewa despises selling her body and Bruno for forcing her into it. Ewa goes along with the work because of her intense devotion to her sick sister remaining on Ellis Island. The complicated relationship that develops between Bruno and Ewa lies at the heart of The Immigrant. Joaquin Phoenix has never been better in a role than at playing the despicable Bruno with such finesse and sympathy.

Upsetting the uneasy relationship between Bruno and Ewa is Orlando the magician (Jeremy Renner). The dashing stage magician has a chaotic history with Bruno, his estranged cousin. The cousins were once in business together before they squabbled over a woman. Bruno’s temper gets the best of him when Orlando flirts with Ewa, leading to a dramatic turn of events that eventually turns tragic for everyone.

The Immigrant is bleak, serious, and carefully crafted to avoid caricatures. The period drama makes Ewa, Bruno and Orlando all completely believable, realistic characters as they suffer through tragedies of various stripes. Each one has their own hopes and dreams, grounded in the historical reality of the 1920s. Both Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix shine in their roles as tragic figures, characters pushed around by forces bigger than themselves and struggling to survive on the mean streets of New York City. Ewa suffers a great deal under Bruno’s care, her American Dream turning into an unending nightmare that causes unavoidable anguish. It is to this film’s great credit that Bruno is handled with such emotional complexity and nuance. Despite his charms and the kindness he shows Ewa, Bruno is a pimp. In his own way Bruno loves Ewa and believes he is doing what is necessary for her own good. That push and pull between those two characters has rarely been handled with such nuance and sophistication.

A powerful drama like The Immigrant is perfect to digest silently on home video. Its careful portrait of one woman’s struggle as she arrives in America and the tragedies that soon follow is a haunting reminder the American Dream wasn’t necessarily the truth for everyone. The Immigrant should have earned more critical acclaim during its brief theatrical run. Its fine direction and strong showing by the cast make it an unforgettable film.

Movie ★★★★☆

On stage @ 25:02

The Immigrant features sumptuous period cinematography by noted cinematographer Darius Khondji. This is not demo material with incredible levels of detail and color. The amber palette has an obvious push towards darker yellow and golden tones. The muted sepia setting perfectly fits the tone of this darkly tragic story. I am fully confident that Starz/Anchor Bay as distributor has preserved director James Gray’s artistic vision found in the film’s finished digital intermediate. The transfer is technically sound, this is a fine Blu-ray representation of a stylized, moody film.

The primary feature runs 117 minutes encoded in a solid AVC effort. Found on a BD-50, a hint of chroma noise leaks into the deeply film-like experience of this Blu-ray presentation. The film is shown at 1080P resolution in its intended 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The softer resolution recalls an older style of filmmaking. The distinctive cinematography serves as a poetic reproduction of the period.

The video itself has a softer focus; even close-ups of Marion Cotillard are softly lit. The somber, restrained color palette holds to a dim contrast with ordinary black levels. A fine patina of cinematic texture fills most of the movie, a layer of subtle grain helps add to its mystique. Definition is certainly strong. No one will mistake this Blu-ray picture quality for shoddy craftsmanship.

The Immigrant is one instance when the very distinctive cinematography feels a natural part of the movie’s experience. It’s an extension of a period in New York City that looks and feels more like a painting than a photograph, which works beautifully for the storytelling.


A stirring, emotional score by composer Christopher Spelman is subtly spread over the 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. Aside from a couple of memorable moments, The Immigrant is not a film that lends itself to a generous surround presentation. Dialogue is firmly anchored in a pleasant manner in the center channel. Capable but negligible rear support adds a touch of nuance to the audio. A few soaring moments sound fantastic, including a recording by the legendary singer Enrico Caruso. The entire film is recorded with excellent fidelity and a solid sense of space, especially in the front channels.

English SDH and Spanish subtitles in white are provided options. The subtitles remain inside the scope framing of the film’s presentation at all times.

Audio ★★★★☆

Feature Commentary with Writer/Director James Gray – This is an engaging, informative chat by the director, one of the better director commentaries I’ve recently heard. He goes into a lot of interesting detail about Ellis Island and his creative reasoning behind many of the choices made for the film. If you were wondering how he constructed this fictional world and its characters, wonder no more. He also covers more technical areas behind the scenes, handling issues about specific shots to cinematography and sound editing.

The Visual Interpretation of The Immigrant (02:54 in HD) – Using a variety of historical sources, including Lewis Hines’ photographs and other inspirations, the director goes over the material that led to the film’s primary settings. This is a short featurette but one worth watching for its amount of historical detail and visual references.

Theatrical Trailer (02:28 in HD)

Various Trailers – These trailers precede the main menu: The Master (01:10 in HD), The Imitation Game (02:30 in HD).

Extras ★★★★☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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