May 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: Complexity lifts 'The Immigrant' beyond standard melodrama

Marion Cotillard stars as a woman buffeted by fate in 'The Immigrant.' (Anne Joyce / Kingsgate Films)

Beautifully shot and acted, “The Immigrant” is such a basic tale it might have been the stuff of an early 19th-century melodrama.

Which is telling, because that’s when it takes place. And yet within the basic tragedy of its framework, director and co-writer James Gray finds so many layers of complex emotion, guilt and self-loathing that the film never feels trite. Indeed, it feels transcendent, so much more than its obvious parts.

We begin at Ellis Island, where Ewa (Marion Cotillard, never better), a Polish war refugee, is arriving with her sister. But her sister has tuberculosis and is taken off to quarantine. Then Ewa is refused admission to the Promised Land, told she displayed low morals on the boat that brought her in.

As she’s awaiting deportation, a guardian angel appears, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), saying he’s with “Visitor’s Aid.” He takes her to his apartment, and soon enough Ewa realizes Bruno is running a brothel. He says he’ll split her earnings with her and eventually she’ll have enough to buy her sister’s way out of the infirmary.

But at this point the standard ruined-woman woe-is-me story starts taking subtle turns. Even though he is selling her, Bruno begins falling for Ewa. And she can’t help feeling compassion for him.

When Bruno’s estranged cousin, a magician named Emil (Jeremy Renner), comes along and also falls for Ewa, offering to rescue her, she feels bound — to her sister, to Bruno, to her own perpetual guilt. And yet, through it all, Ewa remains a true innocent, buffeted ruthlessly about by cruel fate.

Again, it’s the stuff of melodrama, elevated by Gray’s sure hand and made more by Phoenix and Cotillard, lovers and haters and something beyond.

'The Immigrant'

GRADE: A-

Rated R for sexual content, nudity and some language

Running time: 120 minutes

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