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The Visitor

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary with Director Tom McCarthy and actor Richard Jenkins; Behind-The-Scenes with The Visitor; Deleted Scenes (With commentary as well); “Playing the Djembe” featurette; Theatrical trailer.

IN 2003 actor turned writer-director Thomas McCarthy warmed the hearts of cinema goers worldwide with his engaging indie hit, The Station Agent. He repeats the trick with The Visitor, a charming story about everyday people who become caught up in one of the most complex issues facing our time.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an elderly professor who has all but given up on life. Asked by his bosses to head to New York for a weekend conference, he reluctantly agrees and turns up at his city apartment to find an immigrant couple – Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) – living there.

Uncharacteristically, he lets them stay and slowly develops a relationship with the charismatic Tarek, who teaches him how to play the djemba (drum), which gives Walter a new passion in life.

But when Tarek is arrested by the authorities following a mix-up on the subway, and placed in a detention centre for deportation, Walter is moved to take action to prevent this from happening. He subsequently teams up with Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) but slowly begins to realise the enormity of the task facing him.

Taken at face value, it would be easy to categorise the film as just another commentary about the implications of the war on terror. But that’s missing the point and McCarthy readily balks at such suggestions. For as eye-opening as certain plot points are, it’s also life affirming in many ways.

McCarthy’s screenplay is as much a celebration of cultural diversity as it is a damning indictment of American immigration policies in the wake of 9/11.

Walter’s relationship with Tarek marks a beautiful re-awakening for a character who had previously been all but sleepwalking to his grave, as well as a pertinent reminder that everyone should be taken at face value. McCarthy realises this in subtle ways, too, such as a wonderful moment where a suited Walter is encouraged to take part in a djemba jamming session in Central Park, or another in which he treats Mouna to a night on Broadway.

Crucially, though, the film refuses to let down its characters by becoming preachy or judgemental – and it doesn’t pander to the mainstream need for a contrived ending. Rather, it draws to a bittersweet conclusion that’s all the more poignant in the context of what’s come before.

Coupled with a fine, Oscar-worthy performance from Jenkins – a damn fine character actor who has gleefully embraced this “role of a lifetime” – The Visitor is undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 103mins
UK DVD Release: February 9, 2009