May 16 The summer movie season is all about big, crowd-pleasing popcorn films–and that’s exactly why The Immigrant is such a well-timed respite from the barrage of commercial fare. Director James Gray’s coming-to-America melodrama received a warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival last year; now it’s this year’s most tantalizing bit of off-season Oscar bait, driven by performances from award-show regulars Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix.
The film follows Ewa (Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who arrives in New York City in the 1920s. After her tubercular sister is quarantined at Ellis Island, Ewa meets Bruno (Phoenix), a well-connected Good Samaritan who offers to employ her at his Lower East Side theater so she can afford to get her sister out. Eventually he coerces Ewa into prostitution, serving as both pimp and protector until the second-act arrival of Bruno’s cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner, in a smaller but crucial role), creates a thorny love triangle. Their affections are wasted on Ewa, whose single-minded focus on freeing her ailing sister is the film’s beating heart. She’s all gritted-teeth stoicism, even as she’s a victim of circumstance.
Intense performances make The Immigrant a vivid portrait of an immigrant experience that feels stomach-turningly plausible, while meticulously detailed sequences of Ellis Island and the Jewish ghetto provide a haunting backdrop to Ewa and Bruno’s complex emotional drama. “When we shot on Ellis Island,” Cotillard says, “there were a lot of extras from immigrant families who shared stories. We shot there by night, and it was very beautiful and moving–all these people who arrived there with hope.”
And yet it’s Ewa and Bruno’s inverted Stockholm syndrome that drives the story. Cotillard credits a crucial two weeks of rehearsal for their chemistry. “I saw how wild [Phoenix] is,” she says. “He has a very special instinct.” Phoenix, who has appeared in Gray’s past four films–“I just always assume it’s because his first choice is unavailable,” he jokes–was equally dazzled by Cotillard. “I thought it was brilliant casting, because I was so naturally intimidated, in the best way, by Marion,” he says.
Cotillard agrees that it was a rare piece of moviemaking. “It was an experience that made me richer of a lot of things–of history and experiencing feelings,” she says. “And that’s why I do this job.”
This appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of TIME.