Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 4 min .
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 5; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 6.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt
One of my favorite Charlie Chaplin films shares this title. Made in 1917, it poked fun at officialdom and also included a note of pathos as he explored the plight of those leaving the familiar behind for what is hoped a better life. There is no humor in James Gray’s film of the same name—but there is plenty of pathos. Set in 1921 Ellis Island and New York, this is the story of how the Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), pays a high price for a chance at the American Dream. We are given a clue that tough times are ahead for her and her sister when they see the Statue of Liberty as the ship passes it.
The shot of the Statue of Liberty has become a cliché in such films, but not here! Shrouded in the mist of the harbor, Lady Liberty’s back is turned to Ewa and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan)! A portent of things to come. At Ellis Island Magda, found to be infected with TB, is shunted off to the Island’s infirmary, and Ewa is about to be sent back because of a shipboard complaint about her “morality.” Her aunt and uncle were supposed to meet the sisters at the pier, but they have not shown up.
Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man with lots of influence with the Immigration agents, had been observing her. We suspect he has done this many times before. Operator of a sleazy burlesque revue, he “rescues her,” but for what? Bruno turns out to be a complicated benefactor/predator who wants to both exploit and love his latest find. But when he tries to embrace Ewa, she is repulsed. He flies into a rage, revealing the dark side he usually is able to cover over with his smooth urban exterior.
Bruno incorporates Ewa into his dancing act, dressing her, ironically, like the Statue of Liberty, and parading her and the other women before the lustful eyes of the male bar patrons. He makes a deal with a wealthy man for the unspoiled Ewa to introduce the man’s inexperienced son to sex, but…
Reduced to pleasuring bar patrons able to pay Bruno, she submits for a while because he shelters her and pays her the money that eventually will amount to what is needed to get her sister out of the infirmary. But she does rebel against her degradation, running away to see if her aunt and uncle are at the address she has for them in Brooklyn. The aunt gladly welcomes her, but a report of her supposed misbehavior on the ship has reached the uncle. He coldly turns her out the next day.
Back on Ellis Island again, life for her and the other detainees is temporarily relieved by a show featuring performances by the great singer Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja) and Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner). The latter immediately notices her and is attracted. There follows, when Bruno again frees Ewa, a stormy romantic triangle. Given his quick temper prone to erupt into violence at even a slight provocation, there can be no happy ending to this story.
Bruno is a fascinating mixture of good and bad, of gentleness and harsh brutality. Under different circumstances, or maybe with a little more talent, he might have become an impresario in the legitimate theater, such as Florence Ziegfield. A survivor willing to do anything to keep his head above water, when he is kicked out of the bar, he continues his pathetic act using the women under his thumb, only now his stage is in Central Park underneath a roadway bridge before an audience of derelict men with barely enough money seek out cheap sex. That Bruno should eventually become a conveyor of grace stretches our concept of the idea, for me similar to my surprise at encountering so much grace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Ewa, on the other hand, is almost too good, seeming to be a princess out of a fairy tale. This Polish Cinderella bends because of her desperate desire to help her sister, but she does not break. She accepts her role of giving her body over to the lusts of men, but she preserves her soul in a closed-off space where no one can reach it. No one, that is, but Bruno and the man who turns out to be his cousin Orlando. The culmination of their triangular relationship will leave a strong impression on you. In one case it might fill you with a hope that even the most degraded person can change. You will be rooting for Ewa as a better future awaits the two sisters, a future that will take them far from Ellis Island. Though they are heading west, were they to pass the famous harbor statue, this time we hope that they could have seen the face of Lady Liberty, a face smiling at them.