Director: Ben Sharrock
Stars: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Sidse Babett Knudsen
A car filled with disrespectful teenagers performs doughnuts in the wet sands of a Scottish estuary out in the middle of nowhere. In the backseat between two teenage girls, Syrian asylum-seeker Omar (Amir El-Masry) sits uncomfortably as he is spun around and around; promised a lift to town, but getting nowhere. It’s a neat summation of the persistent truth highlighted by Ben Sharrock in his sophomore feature Limbo, which arrives on MUBI following an all-too-brief cinematic sojourn around the country’s indie theatres.
Omar, like a number of other single young men from various countries – Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan – is awaiting news of his fate. Will he be allowed to settle and build a life in the UK? For the time being he and others are living in a small, isolated community. Their presence is greeted with, at best, friendly bafflement, while the more ignorant and hostile aren’t shy about their prejudices. Yet Limbo is more concerned with how Omar and his unfamiliar comrades experience their temporary home, from patronising integration lessons (performed by the fantastic Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard) to the oddball delivery techniques of the local postman.
Anyone who caught Sharrock’s 2015 debut Pikadero may have the jump on others as to the tone of Sharrock’s presentation, which mirrors the formal preciousness of Wes Anderson with an absurdist comic sensibility that’s as much Father Ted as it is The Grand Budapest Hotel. In contrast to Anderson, however, Sharrock utilises space in his tightly-controlled frames, breathing a sense of emptiness into the bitter environs that host his wryly funny observations. This sense of space also comes through in the editing, which weaponises our patience. Long takes will often use the eventual reverse shot to provide a punch-line. This wait is part of the contract Sharrock makes with his audience, to ends both funny and tragic.
As this suggests, said sense of space also helps to imbue the work with a great deal of pathos. We’re given time to study interiors, note details, but also time to appreciate the negative space in Omar’s life. The loneliness and distance from others, and from his loved ones back in Syria. On a number of occasions we return to an old phone box out on the windy hills, where the refugees make calls home. Their varying positions apart from one another makes a visual poem of their individual sense of isolation (they are alone, together), while the phone box itself becomes a kind of portal to the lives they’ve left behind. Malfunctioning, frequently unavailable, a point of connection that seems deliberately distanced from the new society that supposedly embraces them. The film’s title resonates. Too often Omar and the others are left in the space between past and future. Their present is defined by inactivity, by waiting.
A sense of sad resignation permeates most of the characters here. Omar is our guide and chief purveyor as such, but it manifests keenly in those he gets to know, also. His Freddie Mercury-loving friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan is the most optimistic and naive of the group – and Bhai’s performance is a comic gem – but it is his Sudanese and Nigerian housemates Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) that manifest a more disillusioned worldview. In one astute observation, the refugees liken themselves to produce that has passed it’s sell-by-date; a conversation that acknowledges the importance of the media and news cycle that makes them all, briefly, ‘flavour of the month’.
As hope dwindles, the film moves into winter and the world around Omar ices up, becomes encrusted, hibernates. It’s a common movie trait to marry your characters’ darker times to the coldest season, but here it feels particularly apt. Hibernation is about endurance, and endurance is at the heart of Omar’s experience. When he stands before a doggedly turning wind turbine, it recycles the visual metaphor of the spinning car earlier in the picture. Like Omar, we can only wait and hope on an eventual thaw. On eventual change.
Limbo is a deeply sad film in many ways, asking us to acknowledge the difficulties experienced by those deliberately kept on the fringes of society, but Sharrock ensures that his most serious terrain is usually undercut. Even a deportation is sent into the realms of the offbeat by the incongruous inclusion of a child on a trampoline. This humour is vital to Limbo, and to living. When the world is this mad, it says, you have to laugh.