Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Visitor

Following my huge enjoyment of Win Win I sought out Tom McCarthy’s second feature and was not disappointed. The Visitor sees a disparate group drawn together while simultaneously dealing with the issue of US immigration, post-9/11. However, this does not feel like, or certainly doesn’t feel intended to be, a ‘cause film’. First and foremost, as with McCarthy’s other works, it is a human story.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a college professor in Connecticut, uninspired by his work. He is also a widower. On a trip to New York he discovers a young couple living in his New York apartment. Having been victims of a scam, renting the place from a criminal third party, he takes pity on them and lets them stay. Both are illegal immigrants: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is from Syria, Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal. Tarek is a drummer and bonds with Walter as he teaches him the djembe. The authorities catch up with Tarek, who has fled his native country. Walter champions his cause and develops an unexpected closeness to Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbas).

Although he lost out to Sean Penn in Milk, nominating Jenkins for Best Actor Oscar was a great decision – Walter is very much an everyman role, neither dynamic nor Oscar-baiting, and Jenkins is just superb. His odd couple relationship with Tarek is a lot of fun to watch, and Jenkins and Hiam Abbas achieve a lovely and very believable on-screen chemistry.

This has subject matter more hard-hitting than The Station Agent or Win Win. Fleeing an oppressive regime only to be deported by the US, the situation is, depressingly, more ‘lose lose’. The film gives us a look at a New York detention centre for immigrants and at the damaging bureaucracy powering it. Detainees are moved randomly and without notification (to them or their loved ones) and here we see the devastating effects of that. In light of recent events in Syria the story has even more resonance. Still, the film has much of the gentle charm synonymous with the director. It is packed with well-observed humour and pays tribute to the good that can be found in human nature.

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