Reviews - The Visitor
Reviewed By John Stakes
“The Visitor” intertwines two themes – the re-engagement with the world of a widowed economics professor who has lost the impetus to embrace life following his wife’s death – and the impact of the US immigration system on two young illegal immigrants or “aliens” as the US authorities prefer to designate such people. Long time character actor Richard Jenkins (last seen being axed to death in the Coen Bros black comedy “Burn After Reading” currently on release) plays the lead role as professor Walter Vale who, whilst visiting New York to attend a conference in place of a colleague, discovers the “aliens” Tarek a Syrian musician (Haaz Sleiman)) and his girlfriend Zainab a Senegalese artist (Danai Gurira) occupying his Manhattan apartment.
On impulse he allows them to stay in the spare room and an unlikely friendship grows between Walter and the genial Tarek who is an accomplished djembe drummer in a local jazz band. At this point your reviewer has to declare an interest as his step-son is a djembe drummer in a Bristol band and can identify with Walter when he quickly realises what a far from straightforward instrument it is to play even rudimentarily but to which he quickly warms with Tarek’s infectious encouragement as his teacher. Having declined to learn to play the piano when his concert pianist wife was alive which he now regrets Walter finds this new experience at least healing if not therapeutic and it is not long before he plucks up courage to play in Central Park. Zainab is much more guarded in her approach to people having spent time as a detainee herself but Walter gains her respect and she gradually opens up to him.
The relationship between all three is tested when Tarek is arrested as an illegal alien. Matters become more complicated when his mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) travels to New York from her home in Michigan to find out what has happened when her son’s weekly calls to her dry up. The inside of the detention centre as to be expected is revealed as a cold and clinical half way house of an establishment as the detainees await their fate epitomised by the stock phrase of the counter staff when the two-minute business time allowed is over “now move away from the window sir”!
As in many of the films this season the acting was exceptionally good particularly from Jenkins who seizes his opportunity to step from the relative obscurity that is cameo role playing to front of stage. He blossoms in the part, his face often revealing through his consummate skill in underplaying the depth of his feelings which he tries but fails to conceal. Less became more. He was supported by McCarthy’s inch perfect sensitive direction. There was a lightness of touch not often seen from directors working across the pond and, even more surprisingly, not an ounce of sentimentalism, so the sad story and the interaction of the characters could unfold spared from any manipulation of our emotions and was all the more powerful because of it.
Jenkins is being tipped for Oscar success on the back of his performance here, and in voting this film one of the best this season the Alhambra’s large audience would certainly endorse any nomination. A little gem of a film.
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