- Director – Paul Bettany
- Starring – Jennifer Connelly & Anthony Mackie
- Writer – Paul Bettany
- Year – 2015
- Running Time – 105 minutes
The final title card of Shelter, Paul Bettany’s first foray as a writer/director, dedicates the film ‘for the couple which lived outside of my building’. The couple disappeared after Hurricane Sandy and to this day, neither Bettany nor his wife and star of Shelter, Jennifer Connelly, know what became of them. This card sets the scene for what is to come, a powerful though at times problematic, tale of love, dignity, and survival on the streets of New York.
We meet our couple, as they do, on the streets. Tahir (Anthony Mackie) is a Nigerian musician with an expired visa, while Hannah (Connelly), is a depressed and suicidal heroin addict. Connelly’s performance is impressively physical while Mackie is more restrained. However, you see dedication from them both. They say if you look into someone’s eyes you can see their world, and that is clear here. Hannah’s are jittery, darting and fearful, while Tahir tries to project strength and security but underneath there is pain, history and at times terror. Hannah begrudgingly lets a bond develop between the pair, which provides support and safety to both, but also becomes emotionally burdensome.
Bettany shows real promise as both a scriptwriter and director. His direction is unobtrusive, as he allows deeply personal exchanges between the couple, plus moments of harsh realities, as well as the passage of time, all to play out quietly within the frame. A less confident director would have cut to close-ups to underscore the point, but Bettany prefers to let his camera linger and has confidence the viewer sees what he sees. His script is both reflective yet respectful of the couple, and much like their relationship, it is guarded in how much information it reveals, and it is clear that trust needs to be earned before we and indeed they, can expect to hear a level of honesty.
While a necessarily somber tale, at times the tone darkens perhaps more than is needed and occasionally dives (literally) into full-on melodrama. Though Bettany just about keeps you on board, thanks in large part to Paula Huidobro’s cinematography, which contrasts the raw reality of life on the streets, against the beauty of New York.
Bettany’s view of homelessness occasionally feels uncomfortable, but not for the right reasons. As the film unfolds, we learn more about how both ended up on the streets, which from one side, strangely isolates you from the couple, at the exact moment when it should pull you in. This, when coupled with a crass statement from Hannah earlier in the narrative, undercuts the film’s overall premise, which never really gets to the heart of the social economic problems which fuel homelessness, preferring to take a slightly fantastical viewpoint instead.
However, these grumbles aside, the film does a lot more right than it does wrong, and where it succeeds is in the relationship between Hannah and Tahir which feels raw, believable and inter-dependent. Bettany does an impressive job of highlighting the stark realities of homelessness but falls short of tackling, in a relatable way, the scourge of poverty and its potential to drag anyone of us out of our houses and onto the streets.
Review by Will Malone
If you liked Shelter, then try Wild.