James Gray has been a fixture in Cannes since The Yards in 2000, much to the bemusement of UK press who fail to see why he is so consistently invited. His latest, The Immigrant, is by far the least of all the films he's submitted, being a very plain melodrama that could have come from the Hallmark Channel if it weren't for its triumvirate of Oscar-nominated leads. Though it's safe to say the Golden Globes will find places at the dinner table for Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard, Gray's latest is a middlebrow period piece that crawls along at a snail's pace and won't find too much favour at the box office.
It begins in the early ’20s, with the Polish Sonya (Cotillard) and her consumptive sister lining up on Ellis Island, hoping to be granted American citizenship. The sister is taken to hospital for examination and Sonya is refused entry, on the grounds that she may be a “loose woman”, but a kindly stranger, Bruno (Phoenix), takes her in and gives her a bed. Bruno, it turns out, runs an illegal strip club in Manhattan that doubles as a brothel, and Sonya is appalled. Nevertheless, she needs money to pay for her sister's hospital treatment and reluctantly does what Bruno asks of her.
To say how Renner's dancing magician Orlando enters the frame would spoil what little there is that's surprising about the film, but The Immigrant soon becomes an unlikely love triangle: unlikely, since the characters are so very unloveable. There is no chemistry whatsoever – because the writing doesn't call for any – and although Phoenix starts out promisingly as a charming but devious pimp, the spark never becomes a flame. What's left is the excellent cinematography and production design, which leaves one thinking not of simmering passions but all the mottled, muddy-brown wallpaper.