Just ask Ewa Cybulski and her sister Magda, who sail to New York from their native Poland to seek a better life in America, and to escape the horrors of World War I after enemy soldiers kill their parents.
The story takes place in 1921 as they come through Ellis Island, but it could be just as relevant and in many ways as illegal as today’s situation along the U.S./Mexican border.
Written and directed by James Gray and co-written by Ric Menello, “The Immigrant” tells the story of the Cybulski sisters who make it to Ellis Island despite the horrors they encounter on the ship, and are willing to do anything to get through the admission process from there. One gets through illegally and becomes a prostitute to survive, and the other is placed in the infirmary at Ellis Island because she has lung disease.
Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner lead a great cast that makes this familiar story believable. Coltillard is perfect in the role of Ewa, and channels her inner Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” with her realistic polish accent.
We have all heard the stories of the immigrants who came to America to find freedom, peace, and prosperity, perhaps from our own family members. This story is no different than any other written about this movement, although it feels more genuine and makes you empathetic for the actual immigrants who passed through Ellis Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Gray himself has said that “The Immigrant” is based largely on the remembrances of his grandparents, and is somewhat autobiographical.
I appreciate period pieces like this because I can relate to my own great-grandfather’s story. I never met him, but a search on Ancestry.com explains that he came over alone from Ireland at age 19 in 1891, set his sights on Philadelphia, found work in a paper box factory in North Philadelphia, and began the large McMaster family branch in the U.S. Brave men and women, like my great-grandfather populated the U.S. and created the country we know today because they had the courage and stamina to follow a dream. “The Immigrant” shows their struggles in a realistic light, making it clear that many of us have immigrants to thank for the lifestyle we live today.
“The Immigrant” isn’t a fun ride, but it draws you in with solid writing and stellar performances. Brilliantly and with heart, it depicts the seedy side of America’s history, the part that makes you ashamed, yet piques your interest as you watch. It is currently available on Netflix, and well worth the rental.