There is something slightly worthy and Womad about The Visitor, but don't let that put you off. Its writer-director, Tom McCarthy, is a safe pair of hands; remember the miracles he worked on The Station Agent, a film that thrummed with honesty despite resembling something churned out by the Sundance Festival sausage-machine? He has done it again with this low-key picture about a middle-aged square whose life is changed by an ebullient foreigner. Admittedly, this concept is so tired that it was recently given an official burial by the Writers Guild of America. McCarthy, however, makes it breathe.
It helps enormously that he has the actor Richard Jenkins on his team. Jenkins has one of the truest faces in the business - acne-pitted, dishrag-grey, unexceptional. Could his expression of eternal disappointment have stemmed from his having only just landed his first leading role after more than 30 years? No. He always looked like that.
What Jenkins does in The Visitor is close to perfect acting - still, quiet and unshowy. He plays Walter Vale, a widowed Connecticut professor who calls in at his long-unoccupied apartment in New York during a business trip and finds a young couple there who have been duped into renting the place. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a Syrian musician who specialises in the djembe, an African drum; his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), makes jewellery. Walter surprises himself by taking pity and allowing them to stay on.
He starts hanging out and learning the djembe with Tarek, who presents him with a Fela Kuti CD. A corny touch, you might think, just like the moment when Zainab gives Walter a funky African bracelet, but McCarthy gets much mileage out of it. Kuti's music starts jostling for space on the soundtrack with the film's genteel piano score (by Jan A P Kaczmarek), reflecting the influence that Tarek is having on Walter. And it's somehow perfect that we discover Tarek has also sent a CD to his beloved mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) - it's the cast recording of The Phantom of the Opera, which he picked out to give her a taste of his new neighbourhood.
Mostly The Visitor is so persuasive because none of its characters behave like they're in a film. Take the scene in which Tarek is arrested. He and Walter have been playing the djembe in Central Park, as you do. When I tell you that Walter, in shirtsleeves and specs, joins a line of African musicians and accompanies the drumming with the full "white man's overbite", as Billy Crystal calls it in When Harry Met Sally - well, you must believe me that Jenkins gives even this Benetton moment some heft. As Walter and his friend make their way home, the police apprehend Tarek, who turns out to be in the US illegally. Walter doesn't rail against the injustice of it all, or deliver one of those perfect cinematic soliloquies ("You can't handle the truth . . .", "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more . . ." and so on). After objecting ineffectually, he merely does what most people would do. He fades into the background.
With The Visitor, McCarthy has set himself the tricky task of dramatising powerlessness. A screenwriter once told me that if you have a passive protagonist, you can knock a nought off your expected gross. Well, that's Walter - while he doesn't exactly twiddle his thumbs, his good deeds are either thwarted or ignored, and when he does lose his temper, it doesn't change anything. The characters don't become entangled in bureaucracy after Tarek is bundled off to a detention centre - they are simply stonewalled, with not so much as a corrupt official to harangue. That is why the fragments of emotional contact they make with one another become so nourishing, and so disproportionately potent.
Like other notable immigrant stories such as In This World or Last Resort, the film argues implicitly that the connections we make with one another represent our most robust defence against the powers that govern us. It brought to mind my favourite Charles Bukowski poem, "59 cents a pound", which also bangs the drum for plain, unremarkable lives, and ends: "The generals and doctors may kill us/but we have/won."
Pick of the week
My Winnipeg (12A)
dir: Guy Maddin
Brilliant docu-fantasy from the witty, avant-garde Canadian.
The Mist (15)
dir: Frank Darabont
Stephen King horror with political overtones.
dir: Abdellatif Kechiche
Insightful drama about an Arab immigrant who opens a restaurant in Sète.