Marion Cotillard can do anything, anyway. Whatever else one walks away from The Immigrant certain of, one can be certain of that. As the recipient of the first-ever leading female character (co-)written and directed by James Gray, specialist in portraits of New York masculinity in moments of self-doubt, Cotillard has been handed a role with a definite whiff of the worst clichés of women in sinewy, masculine stories. She is a whore, and if I were tasked with deciding what precious metal her heart was made out of, well, I think I might have a good guess. Gray's script, written alongside Ric Menello (who did not live to see the film's 2013 Cannes premiere), adds enough particularising details that Ewa Cybulska, this particular model of that ancient narrative type, isn't quite a stock figure, but there's still a constant danger of the script regressing back towards the mean of Noble Woman of Almost Saintly Mien, Constantly Ground Down by the Cruelty of Men, and it only sometimes manages to avoid this fate.

But throw that character at Cotillard, and sweet Jesus, she will find the rock solid humanity beneath the concepts and the stock behavior, and that is the character you end up getting as you watch the movie. Even as the native French speaker, in her first English leading role, has to adopt a Polish accent on the character's behalf (and to speak a handful of scenes in Polish; I can't vouch for how well she does that, but the accent is spot-on), which surely must have taken a little bit of her attention at all times. The Immigrant is a fine movie in its own right, if a little over-cheered from some quarters (particularly the cinematography, which finds Darius Khondji doing a fine but hardly groundbreaking job copying Gordon Willis's work in the flashback sequences of The Godfather, Part II), satisfying in the tragically inevitable way it moves towards its denouement, handsomely appointed by costume designer Patricia Norris and production designer Happy Massee to resemble a fever dream of the first two and a half decades of 20th Century America. Cotillard, though, pushes it in the direction of greatness; as far as her tour of the 2014 U.S. film landscape, I'm still a Two Days, One Night voter, but good grief, talk about an embarrassment of riches.

The Immigrant opens slight prior to Ewa's arrival at Ellis Island in 1921, and she is already besieged: her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is quarantined with a lung disease, and Ewa runs the risk of being deported right back to her war-ravaged home, when her plight catches the eye of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a seeming do-gooder who bribes an immigration officer to look the other way while he smuggles her into New York. Here, he sets her up in a pathetic little burlesque show he's running, a front for pimping out all of his "actresses" for the benefit of the seedy clientele. While not prostituting her, Bruno falls in love with the fragile, confused woman, who sneaks out when she can to track down her relatives already in America, to beg them for shelter and help rescuing Magda from whatever holding pen she's stuck in. The relatives end up selling her out to the police, but she manages to make another ally in the form of Emil (Jeremy Renner), something of a rival to Bruno, and one who has the distinct advantage of not lying to the women he's attracted to in the hopes of luring them into a life of whoredom. Ewa falls for him and he for her, and this goes very, very badly when the mercurial, jealous Bruno finds out about it.

There's a lot to be said for melodrama that is open and proud about being melodramatic, and it's nicely clever of The Immigrant to tell a story that could, with only modest censorship, have been filmed in the time period when it takes place. There's also a lot more to be said for melodrama that's really good at being a melodrama, and this is maybe not entirely the case with this film. It's nothing on Gray, who directs with a stately slowness that allows the story to burble up and find its level without any modernist or post-modernist touches, and who collaborates with Khondji on some rather fine compositions that understand the value of deep staging like not nearly enough movies do - it gives it a theatrical staging that pairs well with both the tone of the material and the actual content of the story.

But the film stumbles, rather needlessly, on its characters who aren't Ewa. Phoenix has been the leading man in both of Gray's last two films, so it's no surprise he was conscripted to do that job again here, but he's simply not that great at fleshing out a character who gets more complexity than Ewa, though less time for development. There's a lot of the actor's characteristic fuzzy mumbling and emptiness that don't pay off in this film whatsoever. He and Renner suffer from different specific iterations of almost exactly the same problem: they feel contemporary, too much like 21st Century actors trying to put on 1920s attitudes and speech and behavioral rhythms like a coat that doesn't fit right. Renner's work is more baldly modern, while Phoenix simply misses the mark on using newer acting technique to evoke old-fashioned life. But these are gradations. In both cases, the men are thoroughly outmatched by Cotillard and the script alike, and it harms everything: the reality of the movie suffers, especially since it's predicated on fusty atmospherics that present a stagey kind of life and storytelling; the roiling passion of the melodrama suffers more, since Ewa never apparently occupies the same plane of existence as either of her suitors.

The visuals are too confident, and the rock of Cotillard too immobile, for that kind of shortcoming to turn it into a failed experience. By the same token, The Immigrant is very much the sort of familiar-in-most-ways filmmaking and storytelling that needs everything to fire on all cylinders, so that we can declare that it is the brilliant execution that matters, not the lack of originality. When some of the most important cylinders are jammed up, that defense doesn't work so well. For what it is - a golden-toned melodrama about an innocent being tarnished and then redeemed in the Big City - The Immigrant is a lovely piece of work. But that's all that it is, and with as much of it that goes spectacularly right, it feels like there should be more.