It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Emigrants” isn’t the kind of movie we used to be shown in grade school, a movie all about the tired and huddled masses and Samuel Gompers and melting pots.
No, it tells a simple story (and one closer to the truth, most likely) about European peasants caught in an impossible situation. Their land is poor and their crops scarce, their greatest efforts only force them more deeply into debt, and the social system will not allow them to better themselves. Eventually they arrive at a reasonable course of action: They will go to America and see if things are not better there. Their dream is naive, desperate and brave - all at the same time. Nobody has told them the streets are paved with gold (and they are too filled with Swedish common sense to believe that, anyway.) But they have heard stories about the prosperity to be found in America, and it seems as if every mother has a son in Minnesota who owns 100 acres of land. That must have sounded impressive to anyone who had not seen the Minnesota of 150 years ago.
Two boys, bound under contract for a year to a stern and sadistic farmer, read a booklet about the Promised Land: “Even the slaves have a higher standard of living than most European peasants. They are allowed to own their own chickens and market the produce themselves.” “I’m going to sign on as a slave,” one of the young boys exclaims, his eyes alight with the wonder of his opportunity.
And later, on board a paddle-wheel steamer that is taking them through the Great Lakes to Minnesota, the emigrants in steerage look up in admiration to the rich first-class passengers on the upper deck. “I thought you said there were no commoners and gentry in America,” one says.