Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

10 January 2015

The Immigrant

The only reason it occurred to me to watch James Gray's The Immigrant was because people started talking about Marion Cotillard's performance and Darius Khondji's cinematography when it came time for Oscar season. I found out The Immigrant was on Netflix Instant, and (as I didn't have this service at home) wound up watching the movie when I was at my parents' house over the Christmas holiday.

I started watching the movie and was immediately bored. It took itself way too seriously, I thought, and I didn't believe the main character's struggle one bit. I also didn't know anything about her – the director and screenwriter plunged her into crisis immediately before I had a moment to understand who this woman was.

After 25 minutes I had to stop. This movie was a sentimental, cheaply made mess.

So then I thought: what am I missing? The New York Film Critics' Circle and the Boston Film Critics singled out The Immigrant as the best performance by an actress this year.

I decided to read some reviews. Maybe some of the critics would validate my opinion. Nope: raves by both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. I also realized the director was James Gray, who made The Yards many many years ago, which had a fight scene with Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix that my friend Tom and I had called (back in October 2000) one of the best fight sequences ever put on film.

So I decided to finish the film – I usually finish films, in fact – with a new outlook. The NYT promised that Jeremy Renner's appearance in the movie would lighten things a bit. He did, indeed.

But not enough to make this movie worth watching. Maybe I just didn't get it, but what occurred to me as I finished The Immigrant was just how fragile the ability to believe in a picture actually is. I simply didn't buy Cotillard, Phoenix, and company in all of their finery and period garb. They looked like they were playing dress-up to me. (Incidentally I almost always feel this way about Leonardo DiCaprio.) And so I never dropped into the film emotionally or even intellectually, because I just found the whole picture so preposterous.

Not that I don't believe stories like the story in The Immigrant occurred in the U.S. – they probably occurred numerous times. But just that I didn't believe Gray's way of telling this story. The suspension of disbelief is just so delicate. Apparently the critics for the NYT and the LAT were able to drop into the movie; I wasn't.