At 62, widower Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) has lost his passion for teaching and writing, and fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. When his Connecticut college sends him to a Manhattan conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his little used 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 and Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay. Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, teaches the aging academic to play the African drum. But when Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. Then Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives unexpectedly from interstate in search of her son.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
We are so used to political messages in American films about foreigners that it is hard to avoid starting to reading each film as a political statement. In The Visitor, Tom McCarthy's story has lots of political implications but it's ultimately about humanity, not American politics. Of course, by nature of the subject matter, there are references to US society's changed attitudes to illegal migrants. Yet McCarthy avoids the obvious and explores a personal adventure in this conflicted world, through his central character, Walter (Richard Jenkins).
There are so many excellent observations in the screenplay, and so many subtleties in the finished film that the end result is surprisingly gentle, smooth and endearingly positive. This, too, is an aberration in times of an angry world. But that doesn't mean it's a film of meaningless shallowness. Walter's journey from aimless, burnt out professor to a vibrant, emotionally active man carries with it the price of pain. And this is where as a writer, McCarthy earns our respect.
Beautifully cast and superbly performed, The Visitor never steps off the mark either emotionally or in character development. Richard Jenkins, usually in support roles, rises to the lead occasion with grace and a marvellously restrained performance. Both the youngsters, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira, who play illegal migrants from Syria and Senegal respectively, are outstanding, as is the lovely Hiam Abbass, playing the young man's worried mother. Music plays a key role in exploring the different worlds of Walter and Tarek; Walter's classical piano lessons (never very successful) give way to African drum lessons from Terak. And this is how Walter finally releases his newfound passions.
The story avoids a fake resolution of happily ever after, and the details of the migration case are credible and told with economy. A thought provoking and heart warming story about people crossing paths and finding compassion in each other, The Visitor is (despite its partially sad resolution) an uplifting film for all the right reasons. For one thing, it shows us an American who is willing to reach out to people well outside his socio-demographic circle and grow as a result of the exchange.
Review by Louise Keller:
Richard Jenkins' Professor Walter Vale lives his lonely life almost by rote. He lectures in his home town of Connecticut, eats canteen meals alone and tries unsuccessfully at doing something 'for pleasure' like trying his hand at playing the piano. He has no people skills and is uncomfortable with small talk. That is the world to which actor turned writer/ director Thomas McCarthy introduces us. But then something happens. Walter is unwittingly thrown in contact with the life-loving Syrian illegal immigrant Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) after which nothing is ever the same again.
If his first two films are any guide, Thomas McCarthy excels at characterisations about people who are rather lonely and lost. In his 2003's The Station Agent, although the central character was the pivot for the entire community, he was emotionally isolated. So too is The Visitor's Walter, who spends all his time trying to seem busy, but in fact having nothing to do. In Tarek, Walter finds a non-judgmental friend who allows him to find a way to express himself. There's a lovely scene when Walter comes back to his New York apartment and finds Tarek rehearsing on his African drum, wearing no trousers. He explains that as a youngster that was the way he practiced, a habit which Walter later finds himself emulating.
For the first time in his life, Walter finds a purpose as he helps Tarek in his plight at the detention centre. Not only has Tarek opened a door for Walter with his newfound passion of drumming, but he has introduced him to the two women in his life: his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) and mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass). This is an exquisite and subtle character portrait and all the performances are wonderful. Jenkins as Everyman who finds himself for once living proactively instead of passively; Gurira as the emotional designer of exotic jewellery and Abbass as the devoted mother who cannot leave her guilt behind. We are offered provocative food for thought as far as illegal immigrants and detention is concerned and while McCarthy does not try to offer neat solutions or endings, we are left with an uplifting sense of promise as we are left to wonder to whom does the film's title refer.
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TOM McCARTHY INTERVIEW
RICHARD JENKINS INTERVIEW
VISITOR, THE (M)
CAST: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore, Michael Cumpsty, Bill McHenry, Richard Kind,
PRODUCER: Michael London, Mary Jane Skalski, Jeff Skoll
DIRECTOR: Thomas McCarthy
SCRIPT: Thomas McCarthy
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Oliver Bokelberg
EDITOR: Tom McArdle
MUSIC: Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 14, 2008