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The Visitor - Preview & US reaction

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor

Preview by Jack Foley

IN 2003, writer-director Thomas McCarthy stunned many with his beautifully realised movie The Station Agent, starring Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale and Patricia Clarkson. He returns in 2008 with another moving, must-see film, The Visitor.

On this occasion, the talented filmmaker explores identity, immigration, and other major post-9/11 issues in the US – but in a thoughtful, heartfelt and often amusing way.

Richard Jenkins (of Six Feet Under and Intolerable Cruelty fame) stars as a disillusioned Connecticut economics professor whose life is transformed by a chance encounter in New York City.

At 62, Walter Vale is at a crossroads in his life. A widower who has lost his passion for teaching and writing, he fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano in memory of his wife. But when he’s reluctantly sent to Manhattan by his college to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his apartment.

Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go, so Walter allows them to stay with him. Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, insists on teaching Walter how to play the African drum once he sees the professor’s interest, and the music that results revitalize Walter’s faltering spirit.

But after being stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested as an illegal alien and held for deportation, prompting Walter to do everything in his power to help his new friend. And when Tarek’s beautiful mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives unexpectedly in search of her son, the professor’s personal commitment develops into an unlikely romance.

McCarthy said he was moved to write The Visitor because he had spent some time in the Middle East with the last movie he’d directed and subsequently spent more time in the Arab community in New York.

He then came across the story of a young man who had been detained in New York from the Middle East and put into one of the centres depicted in the film, and then joined an organisation called Sojourners, based at Riverside Church in Manhattan, and started visiting detainees.

The ensuing film has been highly praised by American critics, who lined up to heap praise when it was released over the April 11-14 weekend (2008).

The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, credited actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy with demonstrating “that the critical acclaim for The Station Agent in 2003 was no fluke”, while Variety wrote: “A film that is a combination immigrant/resurrection tale, Visitor tilts toward the soulful rather than the political and could be this year’s humanistic indie hit.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, wrote: “The curious thing about is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way.”

USA Today opined: “All the main characters are inherently decent, and the humanity of their saga, which centres on illegal immigration, makes for a deeply moving film.”

And the New York Post concluded: “Best movie I’ve seen so far this year? Hands down, it’s Tom McCarthy’s superb The Visitor, which turns Richard Jenkins, one of the best character actors in the business, into a full-fledged star.”

Rolling Stone, meanwhile, concurred, adding: “The Visitor, featuring an award-caliber performance by Richard Jenkins as the prof, is a heartfelt human drama that sneaks up and floors you.”

And Entertainment Weekly concludes this round-up by stating: “This audaciously issues-loaded indie drama works, improbably and entirely, on account of the marvelous, often familiar-looking, rarely starring character actor Richard Jenkins and his perfect performance as a stodgy, widowed economics professor.”

The Visitor opens in UK cinemas on June 27, 2008.