Director: Paul Bettany
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly
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“For the people who live in front of my building”, reads the caption at the end of Paul Bettany’s directorial debut, Shelter. It’s a dedication that raises all kind of questions, but what could have been an exercise in romanticising poverty or projecting a story onto a disadvantaged stranger emerges as something far more moving and subtle.
The film tells the story of two homeless people connecting: Hannah and Tahir. Both their tales involve loss and tragedy, but what’s remarkable about Shelter’s understated script is the way it handles them. Facts and exposition aren’t wheeled out immediately, because that’s not what people are like. Tahir and Hannah aren’t lonely hearts waiting for love; they’re guarded, trying to get by as everyone around them either gives them something or takes it away.
Bettany presents the streets of New York as a harsh place, where things come at a cost – be it money, sex or dignity – and possession is what defines you. As winter arrives and storms batter the pavements, those with homes are safe and warm inside. Those without shoes, on the other hand, are visibly not part of society.
The notion of ownership makes for a subtle distinction between the two: Tahir guards his drums, which he uses to make money, fiercely, but Hannah, who steals his coat early on, mostly longs to possess more heroin.
Anthony Mackie is wonderful as the illegal immigrant, polite and gentle but always intimidating. He’s matched every step of the way by Jennifer Connelly, who is unrecognisable as the desperate runaway. One has made peace with what he has; one cannot stop craving what she doesn’t.
A standout sequence halfway through sees the pair break into a rich family’s home, dressing up in their clothes and drinking their wine. As they sit down for a lavish meal at a borrowed dining table, the couple suddenly seem more human. Philosophy, French and religion become the conversation du jour and back-stories float to the surface without seeming forced.
Bettany captures the pairs’ gradual acquisition of objects and intimate knowledge of each other with a sensitive touch – one brief, poetic flourish, which sees the pair fall into a puddle, only to tumble through a slow-motion ocean, is a beautiful watershed moment – but there’s a grim reality to the low-budget production.
As we learn more about these characters, the climax makes it harder to care about Hannah’s plight, but the cast’s stunning performances smooth over any melodramatic cracks in Bettany’s debut script. The result is a smart drama that aims for the head as much as the heart; less the cliched story of an unlikely romance and more a study of identity and humanity from a distance. Bleak and moving, it’s a reminder that, no matter what you own, emotional shelter can be as effective as physical. Bettany looks set for a career as accomplished behind the camera as his work in front of it.