The Visitor (US 2007)

Director and Script: Tom McCarthy.
Cert. 15, 106 minutes, 1.85:1
Cast: Walter Vale – Richard Jenkins; Mouna – Hiam Abbass; Tarek – Haaz Sleiman; Zainab – Danai Gurira.

This is a US Independent film currently on release in the UK, and likely to be available on DVD fairly soon. It is a well made and absorbing film, which would also offer fertile material for study and discussion. The plot is simple: Walter Vane is a rather isolated academic, ‘treading water’ both professionally and emotionally. A trip to New York leads him into a relationship with a migrant couple: Tarek, a refugee from Syria, and Zainab from Senegal. Tarek falls foul of the US Immigration service and the film moves from a slightly comic approach to a darker drama.

The writer and director, Tom McCarthy, had an ‘indie’ hit with his previous film, The Station Agent (2003). This also had a somewhat isolated protagonist who gradually develops relationships with rather disparate set of characters, all of whom are, to some degree, outsiders in society. That film had a motif of trains built into the plot. In The Visitor the motif is music: Walter is a widower whose wife was a classical pianist, and Tarek is an artist on the African Djembe drum, which he teaches to Walter.

Tarek teaches Walter to play the African Djembe drum

There seems to be a geographical strand to the film, (my knowledge of New York is limited). The story moves from Connecticut to New York Village, to Central Park, to Queens and then to Staten Island. And the initial journey is followed by trips on the New York Subway; the ferry passed the Statue of Liberty, a taxi to Broadway, and a departure from the New York Airport. I am sure there are strong connotations in this for US audiences.

In the first half the film the focus is on the developing relationship between Walter and Tarek, with drumming as the basis. In the latter half of the film, as Tarek languishes in detention, there is the development of a tentative relationship between Walter and Tarek’s mother, Mouna. This starts to take on more conventional romantic overtones. But it is also a plot development that sets up the closing moments of the film. The end is more downbeat and has less closure than in the earlier The Station Agent, but as with that film there is some optimism in the building of relationships and breaking down of isolation.

The Sight & Sound Review (July 2008 by Isabel Stevens) suggests that: “For the most part it is not even overtly political, since the subject of immigration is tucked away. . . McCarthy succeeds in delivering a humanist portrait of individuals colliding rather than a lecture on the ills and hypocrisy of America’s change of heart over immigration after 9/1.”

It goes on critically, “If the film falters, it’s with an unnecessary boat trip past the Statue of Liberty that threatens to negate this subtlety . . .” I disagree, the ferry trip by Walter, Zainab and Mouna references not only the Statue of Liberty but also Ellis Island, the reception centre for arriving immigrants. Both of these are key components in the rich cultural iconography of US immigration, and indeed of the cinematic representation of this. Moreover, the boat trip is not an isolated sequence. I noted how the films offers recurring images of the Stars and Stripes, and along with its geographical progression, references to the now absent ‘Twin Towers’. My feeling was that this is a fairly overt political film, but one that works by offering prompts to its viewer, which they can ponder and discuss. In particular in the USA Walter could be seen as a metaphor of the larger social isolation of that state.

One aspect of this discourse is that in the course of the film we discover that whilst Tarek is a refugee from Syria, his family is actually Palestinian. So their original flight and refuge followed on the Israeli occupation of their homeland. Oddly none of the reviews that I read refer to this, and neither does the director in an online interview. However, such a dimension is clearly significant for audiences, as the dispossession of the Palestinian is central to the US policies which provoked 9/11, and the subsequent wars and repression.

The Visitor falls into within a cycle of films that deal with the post 9/11 world, its reaction and repression, and its victimised migrants and refugees. US-based films that could be compared would include Sally Potter’s Yes (2003, also about a relationship between a WASP yank and a migrant) and among UK films Last Resort by Pawel Pawlikowski (2000, also with a strong sense of location).

As suggested above, there is a strong visual component in the film’s mise en scène. The film’s style is relatively simple, concentrating on presenting character and plot. But it has excellent cinematography, editing and design. The cast is uniformly good, and their performances carry the odd contrivance in the plot.

Cinematography – Oliver Bokelberg: Editing – Tom McArdle: Production Designer – John Paino: Music – Jan A. P. Kaczmarek.

There are quite a few WebPages on the film, the director and other production members. There is a director’s interview at: http://www.indielondon.co.uk/Film-Review/the-visitor-thomas-mccarthy-interview

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