I had seen The Visitor playing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year but I just couldn’t make it to the screening, and to be honest it didn’t sound the strongest of films. However it turned out to be one of those films that proves you shouldn’t judge a film entirely by it’s blurb as, when I finally saw it, it turned out to be a superbly rich character film with a great deal of heart.
The film comes from Thomas McCarthy who also wrote and directed The Station Agent and stars Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale, a man whose wife has passed away some time before we meet him and has become very closed and extremely insular as a result. He’s just ensuring that he gets by his day to day routine, never integrating too much, and never putting himself outside of his comfort zone.
However one day he’s forced to attend a conference in New York where he has an apartment he hasn’t visited in some time. When he arrives he discovers that there’s a couple living there, a couple avoiding immigration. When all is explained they are courteous and polite and offer to leave, revealing what will happen to them now.
In a move that seems totally against what he has become he races after them and asks them to stay. At first the wife, Zainab played by Danai Jekesai Gurira, is unsure of his intentions but the husband, Tarek Khalil played by Haaz Sleiman, accepts the offer and they begin living together.
Thanks to the couple, mainly the influence of Tarek, his character slowly and beautifully begins to open up and discover something new in his life. However things change drastically when he is arrested and detained for being an illegal immigrant, and Walter begins to act as a go between for him and his family.
The Visitor is an excellent film that really does draw you right into the characters and their stories, and it does it naturally and at a good pace. It's slow and deliberate just the same way as the characters develop and grow, particularly that of Walter. In fact the whole film has this deliberate pacing to it, and it's perfect that way.
The story, events and characters all develop at their own pace, and it allows us more time to get to know and connect with the characters rather than racing ahead with the story as so many other films do. Instead the film builds the character of Walter through his actions and conversations, and for the rest of the film our connection with him is so much richer and stronger for it.
The film has some strong elements of sadness of different types, the sadness of loss, of someone giving up on life, but it's also filled with happiness, often in the same places. The loss also gives the story a place to bring in happiness and affection, and we grow to love the character of Walter a little bit more because of the sadness.
Richard Jenkins steals the show with his subtle and underrated performance. At the start of the film his character seems restrained and withdrawn, but slowly you warm to him as his character is revealed, and come the time when he's beginning to open to Tarek and his wife you've connected with him.
Moments such as the playing of the drum in the darkened room as he emulates Tarek by playing in with his trousers off are silly and heart warming, and when he begins to fall for Tarek's mother you can feel your heart being gently tugged.
The writing is superb as we see with the development of Walter's character. The smallest of words, smiles and actions are what draw us to the character, and it's actually the lack of action that makes it all feel so real. Characters are made so real and identifiable through their quirks and traits rather than elongated conversations and lengthy visual explanations. Here the characters are never larger than life, but are flawed and messy, just like the audience.
Although the story does involve a fair bit politics, in the fact that it's dealing with immigration, detention centres and deportation, it doesn't attempt to address any of these issues on a level higher than how it affects the individual characters. There's no show boating or parading of moral messages, the film stays wholly focussed on the characters and how they are affected, and actually by doing this it's as effective as preaching to a group of those who are converted and willing to listen.
The Visitor is a beautifully emotional and heartfelt tale that manages to create some wonderfully realistic and natural characters that capture your imagination and your heart.
At the same time the story carries a view of immigration and detention that prompts the viewer to wonder if this really is the right way to treat people.
With subtle performances from the leads and a particularly great performance from Richard Jenkins, The Visitor is a film that you should definitely see.