PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

With a name like Shelter, you’d be forgiven for expecting a discourse on the problems with the American welfare system. But rather than a film about homelessness, Paul Bettany’s directorial début instead uses the theme simply as a backdrop for a story about two homeless people, who in spite of varying ways in which they are deliberately set up as polarised from one another, over the course of it discover they have much more in common than either of them might have supposed.

Tahir (Mackie) is a quietly sober Nigerian refugee whose paperwork has elapsed, and who finds himself now a low-priority illegal on the streets of the Big Apple. Into his orbit arrives Hannah (Connelly), damaged goods of the heroin-addicted variety. She’s a devout atheist, whereas he’s unswerving in his religious beliefs, and some of the early part of the film is given over to creditably even-handed conversations about their differences in philosophy – which might feel like a clumsy authorial conceit if it weren’t for the subtle humour with which they are delivered. In fact, there’s a sporadically surfacing effervescence throughout the early film, offsetting its darker second half, making the experience a substantially less intense one than anticipated; a long detour where the nascent ‘couple’ discovers a large unlocked apartment belonging to an affluent family who fortunately have gone away for the summer, makes Hannah’s cold turkey a lot less painful than it might otherwise have been. Unfortunately, this unwillingness to welter in the reality of homelessness renders Shelter more of an admittedly grim fairy tale than a true depiction of lives on the streets, and as it gradually adjusts towards melodrama, its nature as a work of fiction rather than a genuine attempt to capture something of the reality of the destitute is revealed.

Anyone acquainted with Requiem for a Dream will know just how capable Connelly is with this kind of material, and presumably, Bettany wrote this role specifically with his wife in mind. She’s utterly convincing – frighteningly so when you see her skinny, wiry frame later in the film – giving a performance that’s much more subtle and complete than many others would, even down to an almost imperceptible addicts’ twitch which isn’t allowed to dominate the character. But the understated Mackie is the real centre around which Shelter revolves, and he’s a calm, stoic, and charismatic presence. There are some intelligent authorial touches, like the use of water to symbolise important moments in the story, and the handheld photography captures New York beautifully. But you can’t help feeling that Shelter is a little too contrived to convince of its authenticity, and a little too obvious as awards bait to generate a genuinely emotional response.



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