A grim land of the free
ONE of the most popular films written and directed by Charlie Chaplin in the teens of the 20th century was The Immigrant (1917), in which the Tramp arrives on a ship in New York Harbor to begin a new life in the land of the free. There’s a telling scene in the film when, just as the ship passes the Statue of Liberty, officials roughly rope off all the immigrants on board as if they were cattle. This is one of the first instances of bitter social commentary that Chaplin would inject into his slapstick comedies. Raised in abject poverty in London, he had found unexpected fame and fortune in America but was still willing to criticise some aspects of his new home (a fact J. Edgar Hoover, it is said, duly noted).
Filmmaker James Gray, a descendant of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who has explored the lives of New York’s ethnic communities in films such as Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, had not seen Chaplin’s film when he made a movie with the same title, set four years later, in 1921, and looking for all the world like a kind of prequel to his earlier work.
The refugees Gray depicts in are fleeing from a Europe devastated by World War I. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), are Polish and speak little English. As they are herded into the immigration facilities at Ellis Island they are fearful and apprehensive, and why wouldn’t they be? True, they’ve escaped a grim life in their homeland but they’ve left behind everything they know — family, friends, language — on the risky assumption things will get better for them.
It goes without saying many refugees pay a high price for their decision to start a new life in a new country, and Ewa and Magda are no exception. Their first problem is that Magda is diagnosed with tuberculosis and transferred to a quarantine ward. Then Ewa discovers the authorities frown on the arrival of unescorted young women, who are suspected of being prostitutes. To add to her difficulties, she’s told the address she has for her aunt and uncle is “not valid”.
Faced with immediate deportation, Ewa reluctantly agrees to accompany a stranger, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who has bribed the officials and who offers to help her. Bruno’s “help”, the unfortunate young woman soon discovers, is to set her on a path to prostitution. The only ray of hope for Ewa lies in Orlando (Jeremy Renner), an illusionist, who is kind to her — but does he also have an ulterior motive?
Intriguingly, Orlando is presented as one of those who volunteered to entertain the refugees held on Ellis Island. Another (real-life) entertainer who similarly gave his services to the new arrivals was Enrico Caruso, and operatic excerpts used by Gray on the soundtrack serve to underline this fact.
Photographed in muted, burnished colour by the great Darius Khondji and designed by Happy Massee, the film — though obviously The Immigrant (M) Limited release Night Moves (M) Limited release produced on a relatively tight budget — beautifully evokes New York’s Lower East Side, the setting for films such as The Godfather Part II and Gangs of New York. Bruno runs a vaudeville theatre that specialises in strip shows as a front for his prostitution racket, and the irony when Ewa is forced to agree to depict “Lady Liberty” on stage is palpable.
Cotillard gives a remarkable, luminous performance as the beleaguered heroine who would almost have seemed at home in one of the silent screen melodramas being produced at the time in which the film is set. To this untutored ear, her Polish sounds pretty convincing, too. Phoenix gives an unusually restrained performance, which makes Bruno an even more formidable figure. Whether the film can be said to have any parallels with the problems facing today’s refugees and immigrants will be up to audiences to decide. Gray makes his own feelings pretty clear which, given his own background, is only to be expected. LIKE Gray, Kelly Reichardt is an American director who retains her independence as far as possible and who embarks only on projects that interest her. The environment having played a crucial role in her earlier features — Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff — it’s no surprise her fourth feature deals with environmental activists. What is a little surprising, though, is not that the film takes a strong stand against environmental extremists but that her principal characters can be described in those terms.
Reichardt’s first three films were very light on narrative, content to create a setting and atmosphere from which a slim story-line evolved. In this regard, too, is different; it’s her most plot-driven film, and also has a cast of name actors. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) enjoy a relationship that’s difficult to pin down. They’re obviously very close friends, but they don’t appear to be lovers. Josh lives and works on a farm commune in rural Oregon, while Dena, who has a wealthy father, works at steam baths nearby. One evening they attend a screening of a documentary urging action against despoilers of the natural environment, and they decide on a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam they see as disturbing the habitat of salmon and other fauna.
Step by step they move closer to radical action. They acquire a small boat (the name of which gives the film its title) and false identification for themselves. Then there is a meeting with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former marine with knowledge of explosives and sympathetic to the environmental cause.
To make the explosives, these eco-terrorists have to acquire a great deal of fertiliser, and there’s a tense scene in which Dena is faced with a retailer (James Le Gros) who is a stickler for correct procedures and demands identification.
The first half of the film explores these sorts of issues; Reichardt is not so much interested in why these young people think it’s necessary to resort to a violent act but how they do it, how difficult, or simple, it is to create a great deal of damage. Somehow the film manages to come across as being both pro and anti-Green.
This ethical dilemma is the core of the film, but Reichardt never makes it clear exactly where she stands on the issue. On the one hand it’s presented as being admirable to protest against environmental vandalism, but no solution is offered — apart from eco-terrorism, which the film roundly condemns.
Perhaps because of this dilemma, the second half of the film unfolds on shaky ground, with events occurring that, given the characters of the protagonists, seem at best unlikely.
Performances are solid, with Fanning proving once again the former child actress has evolved into a talented adult, and the location shooting in America’s northwest adds to the atmosphere. It’s a strange film, though, especially coming from a director whose previous work seemed much more certain of the points she was trying to make.
Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota
Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard in
Marion Cotillard in