“What strange places our lives can carry us to, what dark passages.”

— Justin Cronin

I first saw Marion Cotillard without her hair as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” I saw her without her legs in “Rust and Bone” and without a trace of any of those characters, in James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” Here she has turned the key in the lock she put on my heart from the very first.

In “Immigrant,” she is Ewa, a Polish waif thrown, like a swiftly fading flower torn from her home ground, onto the concrete shores of Ellis Island, in 1921. She arrives with her sick sister, Magda, who has tuberculosis. Magda is put into the island hospital, and it will take pay off money to get her out.

Ewa is not here to seek the false god of the American dream, of which she knows nothing, but simply to escape the nightmare of Europe, where she was forced by soldiers to watch the murder of her parents. She has a letter from an aunt and uncle promising residence. They do not appear. In this cement forest, there is the wolf: This will be Bruno Weiss, (Joaquin Phoenix) an opportunist, con man and pimp, who slips a guard money and takes Ewa into the city to live in his tenement brothel.

From here Bruno runs a traveling porn show that moves from place to place, and uses musical acts to cover his real trade. Bruno, as played by Phoenix, is a frightening piece of excrement. There is no escape for Ewa, because the oleaginous Bruno holds the key to her bleak future, promising to pay the money for her sister’s release, a promise that begins to fade over time.

Ewa is forced into the life, slowly losing her innocence to older men and the occasional boy, sent to “become a man” in her bed. This played by anyone would be difficult to see. Played by Cotillard with those huge eyes, forever the eyes of a 12 year old, is excruciating.

We have the maiden and the wolf, and we need a compassionate woodsman. That will be Jeremy Renner as Orlando the Magician, played with gentleness, not Renner’s ace card, and seemingly, concern. Yes, it’s love, who wouldn’t love Ewa? Even the wolf finds a place in his heart for her, but too little and too late.

But Orlando, who actually levitates, reads minds and plucks the rabbit from the hat, could have been played by anyone. We love Renner, but give him a gun and take the hat and cape away.

Joaquin, a good actor, is, in my view, miscast. Bruno, under his gnawing hunger for survival, is supposed to be charming, but charm isn’t something Phoenix plays well, if at all. De Caprio could have pulled it off, but we’ve seen enough of him.

Gray’s 1921 New York is shot much like Coppola’s “Godfather,” and Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” There are only the rich and the poor, the trampled and the tramplers. Those with nothing are like pieces of toilet paper stuck to the shoes of those who have everything. Gray handles this well, so well we can hardly breathe in his streets or sleep in his roach haven tenement. But this is largely accomplished by the gifted Darius Khondji, who so beautifully illuminated Paris in “Midnight in Paris” in 2011 and “Panic Room” in 2002. Khondji with David Schlesinger’s sets and Patricia Norris’ fantastic costumes in the brothel theater pieces puts it all together. I suspect co-writer Ric Menello, who also wrote for Phoenix in “Two Lovers,” added a lot. Sadly, Menello died last year in Hollywood.

Gray is an important and skillful director with an eye for rich detail. “The Immigrant” will emerge in the top five at Oscar list with Cotillard on top. It is a dark story, darkly viewed, darkly told, but with Cotillard in place, the dark is often light enough.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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