What would you do if you walked into your flat to find a pair of illegal immigrants had surreptitiously taken up residence? Chances are you’d have the coppers round quicker than it takes to say Ellis Island. But If you’re Walter Vale (Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins), a widowed economics professor from Connecticut who’s in New York for a globalisation conference, you take pity on Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) and invite them to stay under your roof until they find another place. You then wake up the following morning to find your apartment looted and your throat cut…
Well, you would do if The Visitor had been written by a Daily Mail reader. Mercifully it isn’t and writer/director Thomas McCarthy takes an altogether more enlightened view of America’s multicultural society and the endless possibilities it offers for connections and friendship. But like the director’s 2003 debut The Station Agent before it, this is no utopian fable and soon turns to more serious matters. For no sooner has Jenkins’ closed-off academic opened himself up to his exotic acquaintances and discovered a passion for West African percussion than he finds himself as their only ally against a faceless bureaucracy that, having arrested Tarek over a subway turnstile mix-up, is only too ready to send him back from whence he came.
The suddenness with which The Visitor changes from a wry comedy about opposites attracting into a bitter diatribe about immigration is just one of the surprises in this emotional, provocative and beautifully performed film. Another is how effortlessly Jenkins makes the jump from serial supporting actor to bona fide leading man, his mild-mannered milquetoast revealing reservoirs of generosity and compassion just beneath his crusty, unsmiling surface.
His tentative romance with Tarek’s mother (Israeli star Hiam Abbass from Munich and Paradise Now) is brilliantly etched, a union of two lost souls conjoined by a common cause. His climactic burst of fury, meanwhile, has the power of a tornado – a decent man driven over the edge by an administration whose stubborn determination to view every stranger as a possible threat has the unfortunate side effect of turning even the docile Tarek into a politicised opponent.
Congratulations to McCarthy then for raising such hot-button issues, even if he does end up backing away from them with the directorial equivalent of a world-weary shrug. By the time that comes though, The Visitor has already cast its beguiling spell, leaving the viewer just as captivated by its gentle humanist drama as Walter is by Tarek’s hand drum. The hilarious scene where his suited and booted lecturer takes part in an impromptu Washington Square bongo session is sure to be among the year’s most memorable. Play that funky music, white boy!