The Visitor sees Thomas McCarthy return in fine form as both writer and director, after the critical success of The Station Agent. Asked to pin it to a genre, I’d call it a stealth-drama: starting off as a mild-tempered comedy of manners in a European key, it tightens up the storyline to produce a poignant and sometimes striking piece of cinema.

The film opens with a sketch of Walter Vale – as lonely and morose a widowed academic as ever there was. He is pictured rather desolate in an immaculate New England house, and so again in a large New England college. Holed up quietly in his study and shunning interaction, he churns out the same lectures year after year. He lives in a vacuum and draws comfort from its monotony.

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Of course, the real world is bound to intrude, and when Walter is called to a conference and revisits his pied-a-terre in New York, he finds himself sharing with some uninvited guests. Walter is softened by curiosity and ends up inviting them to stay for longer, and so an unlikely friendship puts down tentative roots. Walter’s new housemates Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab are the flesh-and-blood representatives of his field of academic study, “economic growth and developing nations” – “that’s us,” Tarek smiles, referring to himself and girlfriend Zainab – “Syria and Senegal”.

Walter’s previously expressionless life begins to take on the colours of New York,succumbing to Tarek’s warmth and in turn beginning to thaw the frosty Zainab (Danai Gurira, with her magnificent scowls). There are some genuine laughs too, arising from the incongruity of Walter’s adventures in multiculturalism. Even when a worrying turn of events brings Tarek’s mother to the city, there is room for a witty examination of the circumstances; what’s more, it’s just these circumstances that allow Walter to really turn himself around.

McCarthy’s script is spot-on, enchanting us with its characters and giving us food for thought with its wry comment on our world of immigrants and neighbour-strangers. Everywhere people are drawing lines, defining white and black and have and have-not. Tarek’s Levantine mother remarks thoughtfully of Zainab “She’s very black.” Later, an Egyptian server in the coffee shop commiserates with her for being an illegal immigrant. “I’m lucky, I’ve got a green card,” he smiles and shrugs. Then there’s the line you have to stand behind when you visit an asylum seeker in a detention centre, as Walter discovers, bleakly. And at that point, the humour fades away for a few lingering and powerful moments.

With a softly, softly approach, McCarthy has created a film of real heart and humanity, and a wonderful antidote to the sensationalised narratives of globalisation that are common currency in this media age.

Reviewed on: 01 May 2008
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An ageing, lonely man rediscovers his love of life when he visits New York and shares his home with two strangers.
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Director: Thomas McCarthy

Writer: Thomas McCarthy

Starring: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbas, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira

Year: 2007

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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