Wednesday 21 March 2012

From the archive: "The Visitor"

In an age where our movie screens have been given over to faces made creaseless one way or another, those performers with the look of having been lived in assume an even greater worth. Richard Jenkins could pass for Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall's craggier younger brother, and like them, he's paid his dues in innumerable self-effacing supporting roles. Typically, he's best known for playing a man who isn't really there - the ghostly dad in TV's Six Feet Under. All hail Tom McCarthy's The Visitor, then, in which Jenkins finally assumes top billing. His Walter Vale is a resolutely solitary college professor, who, while at a conference in New York, discovers a pair of squatters - a Syrian immigrant (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira) - in his city digs. Perhaps unexpectedly, the loner lets them stay, warms to their food, even makes a fair fist of playing the African djembe drum.

As set-ups for a grouch's redemption go, it's engaging enough, but there's a downbeat turn ahead. McCarthy's first feature, 2004's delightful The Station Agent, made it clear just how much this film-maker believed in people, and their ability to work out their differences; it's just a pity, his latest concludes, that the authorities should be putting further barriers between us. Sold as feel-good fare, but more obviously informed by America's recent mood of gloomy self-interrogation, The Visitor emerges as an altogether sombre piece, assuming a dark blue hue after its sunny beginning, and leaving one with question marks rather than goofy grins. See it for Jenkins, though - utterly sure-footed in his ability to suggest, without sentiment, a core of neglected decency in Walter - and be safe in the knowledge that none of the money handed over at the box office will go on to be spent on Botox.

(The Sunday Telegraph, 4 July 2008)

The Visitor screens on BBC2 this Friday at midnight.

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