A visit to remember
THE VISITOR Directed by Tom McCarthy. Starring Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira PG cert, IFI/Light House, Dublin, 103 min
AN ESTIMABLE character actor whose face is much more familiar than his name, Richard Jenkins has long demonstrated an apparently effortless versatility in roles as diverse as the miner father in North Country, the uptight gay FBI agent in Flirting with Disaster, and the deceased paterfamilias looming over Six Feet Under.
Jenkins finally gets a leading role worthy of his talent in The Visitor, a beautifully understated drama in which he plays Walter Vale, a Connecticut college lecturer whose life has been empty since the death of his wife five years earlier. Walter feels remote from his colleagues and students, and he sleepwalks through his academic duties.
Walter reluctantly agrees to deliver a paper at a conference in New York, where he keeps an apartment in Greenwich Village. He arrives there to find it occupied by an immigrant Muslim couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian jazz musician, and his Senegalese partner Zainab (Danai Gurira), who designs jewellery she sells at a street market.
Suspecting that they have nowhere to go, Walter allows them to stay for a few days. To his surprise, he finds himself enjoying their distracting presence after teaching the same dull course for decades.
Earlier in the movie, a teacher tells Walter that learning a musical instrument at his age is difficult unless he has a natural talent. He finds and taps into that skill when Tarek instructs him in playing the African djembe drum.
The harsh reality of the outside world intrudes on this idyll, bringing a dilemma for Walter and his new friends, as well as Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) when she comes to visit. In addressing the fate of undocumented immigrants in the post-9/11 US, writer-director Tom McCarthy captures the human dimension of their plight with depth and subtly but without sentimentality. “After a while, you forget,” one character succinctly notes. “You feel you really belong.”
In structure, The Visitor resembles McCarthy’s earlier The Station Agent, another serenely paced narrative in which troubled characters find solace in each other. Again, he adopts the gentlest of tones, all the more effectively in encouraging our empathy with and concern for his protagonists.
McCarthy elicits touchingly credible performances from his four principal actors. He keeps Walter’s dialogue pared to a minimum, relying instead on Jenkins’s wonderfully expressive quality that is at the heart of this captivating film. MICHAEL DWYER