Film Review: Shelter

Unexpectedly touching drama about a homeless couple that manages to transcend its oppressive subject with superb acting, writing, directing and cinematography.
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Shelter, marking actor Paul Bettany’s debut as writer and director, is a depressing—and oddly haunting—film about the tortured lives of two homeless lost souls. And, yes, it’s yet another feature tackling homelessness this season. Earlier there was Oren Moverman’s tedious Time Out of Mind, starring Richard Gere, and coming up is the mildly engaging The Lady in the Van, starring the irrepressible Maggie Smith. Alan Bennett wrote the script, adapted from his stage play and inspired by a personal encounter.

Similarly, Bettany’s film emerged from a real homeless couple—a white woman and African-American man—who lived on his block until Hurricane Sandy erupted and the neighborhood was evacuated. Bettany never saw the duo again, and his curiosity about their story—who they were, where they came from, and how they ended up living on the street—became an obsession, which in turn led to Shelter, a story based on some fact but largely imagined.

“I didn’t want to tell a big story, make a sweeping statement about how homelessness and drug addiction are bad,” Bettany has said. “I just wanted to understand these two people better.”

Though Shelter is not for all tastes—it is very sad—it’s also an original love story featuring singular, clearly delineated characters beautifully acted by Anthony Mackie and the always-impressive Jennifer Connelly (Bettany’s Oscar-winning wife). An early shot of Hannah (Connelly), a wide-eyed, emaciated young woman panhandling, says it all. Sitting on the ground, propped against a building, she displays a hand-scrawled sign that reads, “I used to be somebody.”

The audience is introduced to Tahir (Mackie) as he’s released from jail on charges that are not entirely clear, though he is simpatico and, to judge by his accent, African-born.  He returns to his makeshift home on a Brooklyn side street only to discover that his belongings have been stolen. He makes a few dollars as a street drummer and is a practicing Muslim of sorts. His religious beliefs—reflecting his anguished life experiences—are complex.

When Tahir sees Hannah on the street, he is drawn to her. He also worries about her and follows her. She feels stalked, and after a violent confrontation with him on the Brooklyn Bridge on an icy, stormy night, she takes shelter with him under the bridge and over time a powerful bond is forged. As they attempt to negotiate the day-to-day brutalities of street life and try to make sense of a bureaucratic and insensitive social-service system, their respective backstories unfold, though never fully. Not all the narrative gaps need to be filled. The ambiguity works well.

Hannah, a formerly well-heeled woman from the Midwest, became a heroin addict in the wake of her husband’s murder, while her young son whom she has abandoned lives with her father. Dad desperately wants Hannah to come home. Tahir, a native of war-torn Lagos, lost his wife and son in the brutality and morphed into a war criminal himself, responsible for unspeakable acts. In New York, awash in guilt for his war crimes and missing his son, he suffers from asthma and other respiratory infections, spending time in public hospitals only to be released too soon without a place to stay or even enough money to renew his medication.

There are many troubling, all-too-credible scenes, most pointedly Hannah prostituting herself with a local doorman who, in return for her services (and it’s a graphic section), provides shelter for the couple in a back room of a posh building. When Tahir discovers what she is doing, he explodes violently and commits an atrocious act. In lesser hands, the characters would be one-dimensional and devoid of humanity. Even the doorman would simply be repellent. Here he’s also an object of pity.

But what works most powerfully throughout the film is Hannah and Tahir’s evolving love for each other. Their growth as human beings is nuanced, layered and in the end unexpectedly moving.

The city as backdrop also plays a significant role in setting the tone. A desolate Brooklyn Bridge in a blinding blizzard and the sun-baked Brooklyn streets in mid-summer are palpable. Thanks to Paula Huidobro’s poetic cinematography, the city takes on the stature of yet another character.

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