|Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company|
The picture acts as a counterpoint to all those tales you've heard about those sailing from far-away lands, ending up in the U.S. and achieving the American Dream. This is not one of those stories.
Marion Cotillard gives one of her finest performances as Ewa, whose sister is kept in a hospital to be treated for tuberculosis while she herself is nearly deported after an official deems her of "low morals" and questions why she is not traveling with a man.
She ends up being rescued by one - a man, that is - but soon ends up regretting it. Bruno Weiss (a terrific Joaquin Phoenix), a producer of burlesque shows and pimp, agrees to vouch for Ewa and provides her with a place to stay, though she soon learns for a steep price.
Although given to fits of rage and unruly behavior, Bruno is not a violent man - at least, not toward Ewa, whom he seems to grow to care for, despite his exploiting her. Instead, he plays on Ewa's vulnerability - her sister's well-being - by convincing her that the money she earns from turning tricks will eventually be able to pay for her sister's admittance into the country.
Gray does a fabulous job of capturing the look and feel of the Lower East Side of the 1920s with a visual style that is reminiscent of Sergio Leone's masterpiece "Once Upon a Time in America" and the the first half of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part II." The details of the film's period look are amazing, right down to the theater where Bruno's burlesques are held and the cramped apartment that Ewa shares with Bruno and several of the other women who work for him.
Then, in walks Emil (Jeremy Renner) - or, Orlando the Magician - a relative of Bruno's who is the exact opposite, possibly hinting at a romantic interest or even savior for Ewa, who confesses her sins in a church confessional, but admits to a priest that she'll first "burn in hell" before not having the money to pay for her sister's recovery. His entrance leads to further complications for Ewa - namely, jealousy on Bruno's part - that threaten to bring her stay in the U.S. to an end. On the one hand, she wants to flee from Bruno, but Emil might seem a bit too good to be true.
Those critical of the picture will likely draw attention to the fact that Ewa's concerns are all played out in the form of melodrama, which is completely true. But that doesn't take away from the movie's emotional resonance, hypnotic power and lush visuals. Melodrama is often viewed as a semi-disreputable genre, much like horror and science fiction once were. But when done correctly, as it is here, it works. And it certainly does not detract from the story, which isn't based on a true case as far as I'm aware, though it may as well have been.
The film's opening shot is of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by mist and its final shot alone is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. This is a great movie and one of the year's best.