Director: Paul Bettany
Starring: Jennifer Connelly & Anthony Mackie
Synopsis: Hannah and Tahir fall in love while homeless on the streets of New York. Shelter explores how they got there, and as we learn about their pasts we realize they need each other to build a future.
Rating: 18 Duration: 105 minutes Release date: 11 January (UK)
Paul Bettany’s thoughtful drama on the many woes of being homeless is a mixed bag. His directorial debut which stars Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Connelly is beautiful yet pretentious and dramatic yet overly so at times, and strives too much for dramatic art far too much. To be homeless is, of course, terrible to say the least but Bettany never quite raises the issue above the levels of melodrama.
In what transpires to be very unfortunate events, Tahir (Mackie) and Hannah (Connelly) are both homeless on the streets of New York. Hannah has turned to drugs and abandoned her family after her husband was killed in a terrorist attack while working abroad. While Tahir is an immigrant who has been forgotten by the system that is meant to protect him, and who has an horrific past he would rather get away from.
Their journey’s begin in slightly innocuous fashion, as we see Hannah begging and displaying a sign that reads “I used to be someone.” Drugs are her life now and Hannah begs in order to pay for her next injection. Tahir on the other hand lives simpler and in a way seems grateful for what he has, rather than pleading and feeling sorry for himself, he instead takes some solace in being far removed from his previous life.
Paul Bettany’s take on homelessness is inspired by his experiences with a homeless couple who lived outside his New York apartment until they one day disappeared. It’s never quite clear what his exact experiences were with the couple, but Bettany tries to paint a distinct portrait. His use of low shots display the street level view that he believes make his film unique, but there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right here.
Shelter is, at times, a beautiful film to look at but still manages to create a grittiness that means it is never comfortable viewing. And neither should it be. Being homeless is a terrible thing, especially in this day and age, but Bettany never manages to really convey the true travesty of having to live on the streets. The whole thing has a student film chic about it and it feels like he’s trying to impress people with his art house trappings rather create a real look at what it is to be homeless in today’s world.
What also hurts Shelter is the limited cast. We never see past Hannah or Tahir and never really get a feel of how the homeless community live with each other. Thieving and crossing each other are hinted at early on, but the politics and tension of fending for yourself in this community are not really touched upon. A few scenes hint at the fun people in a horrendous situation can still gain from life, but too often we go back to our protagonists struggles with each other rather than giving us the wider picture.
Perhaps that’s missing the point somewhat. Shelter is, after all, sold as a love story but it all seems a bit pretentious, too predictable and too convenient. Bettany may make a good director in the future, and his debut is interesting if flawed, but Shelter never quite clicks and feels more like a call to be recognised rather than being a legitimate attempt at telling a distressing story.