Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Visitor

Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

Walter Vale is a middle aged college professor, a greying, invisible nobody who delivers lectures in a monotone and utterly neglects his students.  Although he’s living an aimless, solitary life and appears to have given up on just about everything, there’s still a little fight left in him: he’s stubbornly, hopelessly trying to learn the piano.

Trapped into travelling to New York to attend a conference, Walter (Richard Jenkins, in a standout performance) reluctantly returns to his long vacant New York apartment, where a dramatic encounter with a young immigrant couple gradually changes his entire outlook on life.

As Walter’s unlikely friendship with talented musician Tarek progresses, even the young man’s initially disapproving girlfriend Zainab begins to open up.  With their help Walter is able to take an interest in life again – but his newfound fulfilment is tested in unexpected ways when Tarek is abrubtly arrested as an illegal immigrant, and his worried mother and girlfriend are unable to visit him.

The strength of The Visitor is its focus on the characters.  By making it a story about individuals rather than a statement about US immigration services, we’re engrossed in people’s reactions to the situation.  Writer/director Tom McCarthy hopes it will humanise the problem for US audiences, since “we’re not just talking about issues… we’re talking about human beings.”

An absorbing tale of cultural collisions, music, love, and second chances, The Visitor is by turns thoughtful, wistful, funny, awkward, and romantic.  It’s an indictment on anyone who goes through their day without thinking about others, and it’s a must see for anyone in search of a film capable of provoking and entertaining at the same time.

This review was originally written for an online magazine, and is republished with permission.

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