(out of 5)
Marion Cotillard and her sister arrive on Ellis Island after escaping Europe during World War I, looking forward to a new life with their aunt and uncle who are already established in Brooklyn. The hopes of the new world are immediately dashed as Cotillard’s sister is taking to the island’s hospital for lung infection and Cotillard is told that she herself, as an unescorted woman, cannot enter the country and will be deported. A man with connections to immigration authorities (Joaquin Phoenix) shows up and saves her from that fate, taking her to his place and setting her up with a job as a seamstress and a place to stay. The vulnerability of a newly arrived immigrant in this treacherous world means she is powerless to save herself when he turns out to be shady, quickly introducing Cotillard to nights as an onstage performer at a seedy burlesque and forcing her to take money for sex on the side. She is devastated by her fortune but needs the cash to get her sister off the island, so she endures Phoenix’s manipulations while learning very quickly how to take care of herself, the two of them doing a dance around each other’s wants and needs that sees lust and hatred constantly being traded back and forth until the conclusion. James Gray’s gorgeous period epic is dripping with beautiful images that take you back to a time gone by, made glorious by characters who are sympathetic and a performance by Cotillard that is absolutely bewitching. She has an uncanny ability to make her vulnerability very charismatic without ever being tiresome or whiny, attaching you to her plight until the story’s end. Phoenix does not fare as well, miscast as the trickster who is layers of lover, fighter and terror depending on the day; unabashed vulnerability is the actor’s trademark and he is superb at playing naked sensitivity, but giving him a character who is all masks is simply not something he manages to ever make convincing. He is outshined quite easily by Jeremy Renner as a magician who also captures Cotillard’s fancy (the two men’s roles should actually have been reversed), but this flaw does nothing to ruin the feeling of absorption that the film, which acts as a good companion piece to Crialese’s excellent Golden Door, envelopes you in.
Directed by James Gray
Screenplay by James Gray, Ric Menello
Cinematography by Darius Khondji
Music by Christopher Spelman
Production Design by Happy Massee
Costume Design by Patricia Norris