Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore, Michael Cumpsty / Fiction / English
Powerful human drama from Thomas McCarthy, acclaimed director of The Station Agent.
?Thomas McCarthy’s first film as director, The Station Agent, saw a set of smalltown oddballs insist upon befriending a newcomer in town, even though he simply wanted to be left alone. In The Visitor, McCarthy’s sophomore feature, life goes to even greater lengths to engage with a self-styled loner: drab, widowed professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) comes back to his rarely-used NYC apartment to find it occupied. The squatters are a pair of refugees: Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese partner, Zainab (Danai Gurira). With the experimental curiosity of one with not much left to lose, Walter opts to befriend the runaways rather than asserting his property rights, and a significant friendship is born. Had a lesser performer than Jenkins been cast in the lead, Walter’s flowering under Tarek’s extrovert influence might have seemed too sweetly convenient, and the film a too-trite comment on short-sighted isolationist attitudes to immigration. But Jenkins – a stalwart character actor probably best known for his recurring role as the deceased but restless patriarch in Six Feet Under – renders Walter’s emotional and cultural awakening powerfully believable and moving, so that when the happy times are rudely interrupted by Tarek’s arrest and incarceration, we experience a real sense of loss as well as a generalised frustration at the way things are. The story shifts emphasis once again with the arrival of Tarek’s mother, Mouna (beautifully played by Hiam Abbass, also the star of Lemon Tree, p 66), whose onscreen chemistry with Jenkins is as unexpected and gently powerful as the bond developed by their characters. An old-fashioned movie about human interconnectedness played out against a very modern landscape of shifting borders and unstable citizenship, The Visitor has both warmth and pertinence.
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