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James Gray's The Immigrant is the sort of film that would be more at home on the giant screens of America's lavish movie palaces, circa 1928—The Strand in New York or Grauman's Chinese in L.A., perhaps—than on the art house screens of 2014. It's a period piece that is uncommonly sincere, straightforward, and melodramatic (and not in a satirical way).

Some will find the throwback style jarring, perhaps even heavy-handed, and dismiss it on this point. But that would be a shame, because The Immigrant is more than meets the eye.

Some might compare The Immigrant to The Artist, the 2011 Oscar winner that paid cheerful homage to the silent film era. And Gray's film, set in 1921 New York, is the sort of thing that could have worked as a silent film directed by someone like King Vidor (The Crowd). The plot is fairly simple, the actors exaggerate facial emotion and physical action (running, fighting, cowering) and operatic orchestral music (by composer Chris Spelman) is plentiful. The grainy sepia tones of cinematographer Darius Khondji amplify the film's retro feel.

Yet Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night) has more in mind than mere stylistic homage. Unlike The Artist or Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby—1920s period films primarily about celebrating the aesthetics of cinematic antiquity and postmodernity, respectively—The Immigrant is actually interested in investigating the place and time in which it is set. It's the sort of non-cynical period piece more interested in history itself than in using history to subvert a genre (Unforgiven, Far From Heaven) or to revel in postmodern pastiche (Marie Antoinette, Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby).

Among other things the ...

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