The Immigrant (2013): A Dark Take on the 1920s


The Immigrant (2013) is one of those movies I remember reading about when it was in production. It stars Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix and is set in the 1920s — what’s not to love? The film premiered at Cannes and won a bunch of film festival awards, but for some reason, I never heard about it being released and it seemed to have disappeared off the radar! The film recently came available on Netflix, so I finally got a chance to see it.

Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish refugee who comes to New York with her sister after her parents were killed in the Silesian Uprisings of 1919-1921. The story begins on Ellis Island, when Ewa’s sister is put into quarantine for having tuberculosis. Ewa is nearly deported, but she catches the eye of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), an American who pays some bribes and helps her out. Only, of course, he’s not just doing this because he’s a good guy … Bruno owns a small vaudeville theater, and he puts Ewa to work there, claiming to want to help her but really to control her. Meanwhile, Ewa has to negotiate a hardscrabble life in a new country as she tries to earn enough money to free her sister. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so let’s leave it there.

Marion Cotillard gives a really great performance as Ewa. She’s conflicted, traumatized, but also maintains a grain of hope. A decent portion of her dialogue is in Polish, and her Polish accent is impressive.

Marion Cotillard as Ewa

Marion Cotillard as Ewa

Joaquin Phoenix is also quite good as Bruno … which is impressive, because he can annoy me. He manages to control Ewa, not in a loud, showy sort of way, but through quiet reasoning. And his desire for her isn’t played overtly, you can tell he’s struggling with how to reel her in carefully.

Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno

Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno

There’s one more character who plays a significant role — Jeremy Renner plays Emil, Bruno’s cousin. His performance is strong, although I was a bit confused as he’s supposed to be the handsome one.

Jeremy Renner as Emil

Jeremy Renner as Emil

Interestingly, the director was inspired in part by the experience of his own grandparents when they immigrated to the United States:

“The truth is my grandparents spoke really no English until the day they died, didn’t really assimilate at all,” Gray said. “And there was a tremendous melancholy, especially [for] my grandfather, who used to talk about how he missed the old country, which I never understood — my grandmother’s parents were beheaded by Cossacks! I never understood what he was missing really, but I found it interesting that he still had this pull for the place. And to me it meant that immigration is a bit more complicated. So that was one of the moods I was trying to impart.” “‘The Immigrant’: A woman’s tale of assimilation” — CBS News

The costumes were designed by Patricia Norris, who passed away in March 2015. She has a big resume, including 12 Years a Slave (2013), the Twin Peaks pilot (1990), and Victor Victoria (1982).

In general, the costumes are very restrained, as befits the dark, sepia tones of the film.


Even the showgirls, who wear cheap yet fashionable ensembles, are shown very realistically and somberly:


And then there’s the stage costumes, which are really well done. They’re tawdry glitz, but with the sepia tone that colors every shot, the mood is maintained. The show that Ewa joins features showgirls dressed as though they are from different countries, which puts an interesting spin on things:




Can’t remember!


Not sure! Maybe “African” on the right?

Ewa plays “Lady Liberty” and wears a stunning costume made of a grey chiffon dress with an amazing headdress and lamp. I don’t know whether it’s actually all that exciting for T&A purposes, but it very much captures Ewa’s feelings about all of this:


As Ewa becomes accustomed to her new life, she has another theatrical outfit that she wears:


I love the makeup: perfect dark red lips and smudgy eyes.


Peacock feathers and acid green.

So, if you’re interested in a subtle, thoughtful, dark take on the immigrant experience and/or the 1920s, give The Immigrant a whirl!


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

2 Responses

  1. Michael L. McQuown

    Looks interesting, and very apposite given the current issues here. Somebody should do a biopic of the late Ingrid Pitt. Best known for her roles in Hammer and Amicus films, Ingrid was a child survivor of the camps. She was also very outspoken. She left East Germany one step ahead of the police by swimming the Spree and was pulled out of the river by an American GI. The rest, as they say, is history.

  2. Kathy Gustafson

    I loved The Immigrant. But Marion is my girl crush.