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‘The Immigrant’ deeply moving, unsettling (w/video)

  • Joaquin Phoenix, left, and Marion Cotillard in a scene from the film, "The Immigrant." The movie opens in the U.S. with a limited release on May 16, 2014. (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Anne Joyce)

“The Immigrant,” with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, is one of those prickly period pieces about hard times that gets under your skin and leaves you unsettled long after.

The story is far more about survival than love, but there is a sense of seduction in director James Gray’s new film, a wolf in sheep’s clothing quality. Not unlike Bruno Weiss, the dandy who trolls Ellis Island for pretty girls in bad straits, played so well by Phoenix.

Cotillard’s Ewa Cybul-ska is one of those weary and desperate beauties, a world away from her edgy portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007’s “La Vie en Rose,” which would win her an Oscar. Ewa and her sister, Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk), are just off the boat, still awaiting clearance to enter the country. It’s a compelling opening scene, the endless lines, the empty faces, so many fates hanging in the balance, and opportunists like Bruno plying the sea of humanity like sharks.

The sepia-saturated scene immediately evokes that vast influx of refugees in the ’20s and ’30s. The period detail achieved by production designer Happy Massee, costume designer Patricia Norris, and captured so beautifully by cinematographer Darius Khondji is outstanding. Composer Chris Spelman adds a bluesy jazz-age sound that is terrific —weeping when it needs to, carefree when called for.

A bad cough that Belva can’t stifle quickly separates the sisters and sets the conflict in motion. Belva’s sent to the hospital ward and marked for deportation. Ewa is likely headed back to Poland as well unless someone steps in to sponsor her. All the while, Bruno is circling. His offer comes at a desperate time for Ewa, his help extended like a favor she is lucky to get. So begins Ewa’s life in this country — in debt to a stranger, the price of admission a high one, any promise of opportunity in America apparently not meant for her.

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