Loneliness and longing are examined with a forensic and unflinching eye in “Shelter,” a bleak Irish-language drama about a reclusive 20-something man-child who must face the world he has been protected from all his life. This portrait of a timid soul whose vulnerabilities are cruelly exposed as he searches for friendship and affection is very well performed and visually striking, but its intensity and refusal to indulge in sentimentality makes it sometimes tough to watch. Adapted from the 2013 novel “The Thing About December” by Donal Ryan, “Shelter” marks a promising debut by writer-director Sean Breathnach and has been selected as Ireland’s official submission for the 2022 international feature Oscar.
The basic outline of “Shelter” echoes films such as Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” and Rolf de Heer’s “Bad Boy Bubby,” in which young adult males are suddenly thrust into the world after being cruelly locked away from it all their lives. In “Shelter” it is not imprisonment but willing acceptance of overwhelming parental love that has kept John Cunliffe (Donal O’Healai of “Aaracht” and “Impossible Monsters”) separated from the mainstream of life. We discover this in the slow release of information following the death of John’s mother and his subsequent inheritance of the family farm in the ruggedly beautiful Connemara region.
John is a curious creature to say the least. After discovering his mother’s body in the sitting room he stares into space for quite some time before doing anything. At her wake he sneaks into a bathroom to masturbate. It’s never made clear whether John suffers from a mental disorder or is just excruciatingly shy and awkward. In some shots he looks about 25. From other angles he could be 40. It’s hard to tell much about John except that he’s an emotional blank who seems unable to cope with his own existence or relate to other people.
When elderly neighbor Paddy (Macdara O’Fatharta) tells John he must “stop living like a ghost” it’s easier said than done. Forever dressed in bland brown and green tones that make him look like part of the landscape, John only seems at peace when walking around the “bog and stones” of his property while reciting place names and recalling the spirit of the father he still worships. The heavy cloud hanging over John’s fragile state of mind finds a powerful visual metaphor in magnificent images of mists hovering in the valleys and obscuring the tops of hills surrounding John’s patch of earth. Even here he is not completely safe. Lurking menacingly on the sidelines is Stephen (Diarmud de Faoite), a local who wants to buy John’s land for much less than it’s worth and turn it into a wind farm.
Already looked upon as the village idiot in his remote rural community, John becomes the victim of violence when news of his inheritance spreads. A savage bashing at the hands of longtime tormentor Eugene Penrose (Eion Geoghegan) leaves John in hospital and in danger of losing his sight. His extended period of recuperation brings him into contact with fellow patient Dave (Cillian O’Gairbhi) and Siobahn (Fionnuala Flaherty), a kind and caring nurse.
It is heartbreaking to watch John’s attempt at friendship with Dave, a vile misogynist and bully who brags about his sexual conquests while teasing John about his virginity. There’s more hope for John in his attempts to form a romantic relationship with Siobhan, but even as it moves toward tender and touching moments this tale is never far away from pain and disappointment.
Though Siobhan is a thinly sketched character, Flaherty brings a depth and warmth to the role that makes us believe in and care about this very strange relationship. The same can be said for O’Healai, who appears in every scene and uses subtle gestures and facial expressions to generate understanding for a man who is charmless and guileless. While many viewers will be much harder pressed to feel genuine warmth and sympathy for John Cunliffe, he’s one of those oddballs who does not fade quickly from the memory.
Though easier to admire than enjoy, “Shelter” has many fine attributes, and it will be interesting to monitor Breathnach’s progress from here. This beautifully photographed drama is well served by the haunting sonic sculptures created by Icelandic composer Sindri Mar Sigfusson (aka Sin Fang).