Directed by: #BenSharrock
Written by: #BenSharrock
Limbo, the second film from writer-director Ben Sharrock after the well-received Pikadero, is about refugees and the migrant crisis. It tells the story of a group of refugees from a combination of countries who are left in the middle of nowhere on a fictional Scottish island. Left here as they wait to have their asylum granted, they battle boredom, prejudice and the bitter cold with only each other for company.
With that description in mind, I would happily bet at least £50 that you cannot predict what this film’s opening scene is. You certainly would not expect the aforementioned story to have produced one of the funniest films of this year. Yet that is what you will find in Limbo. With his deadly serious topic, Sharrock has made a film that is undeniably moving, speaking to the humanity and pain of his characters, but that finds a deadpan wit and poetry in their situation.
The refugees live in bare, grey shared accommodation on the island, and ‘room’ together in small groups. Limbo’s focus is on one of those small groups. The principal character is Omar (Amir El- Masry), a Syrian refugee who has fled conflict with little belongings other than his oud, a Middle- Eastern string instrument of which he is a master. Despite his skill, Omar continually avoids playing again, clearly attaching some great pain to the memory of his own music.
He is joined by Nigerian brothers Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who has the touchingly earnest dream of playing football for Chelsea. Whether he really deeply believes this can happen is not clear, but he sure hangs on hard to the dream. Rounding out the group is Farhard (Vikash Bhai), a remarkably jolly Freddie Mercury fan from Afghanistan who brings much of the film’s humour in the early stages, but will later provide great pathos too.
All of them are presented as real, human characters, reduced not just to the role of refugee. Typically, to emphasise the scale of the refugee crisis, we will see great swathes of people in refugee camps on screen, but Sharrock takes an alternative route. Almost entirely showing just our four main characters, he avoids the trap of presenting refugees as one homogenous mass, something enforced by the mix of nationalities in the group. The four men have differing backgrounds and varied reasons for their migration.
There is wonderful depth to this notion of not being identified by your refugee status, too. As the characters live longer and longer away from home, and their lives become more restricted by their endless waiting, they cannot help but feel defined by their refugee status. In Omar in particular, we see his awareness of his past personality being eroded by his new life. And in Farhad, we see yet another layer as the only character who appears to long for home less often, settled into his new routine.
Yet the film always explores all this with a light touch, either being quietly devastating or genuinely funny. By consistently finding the humour in their lives, Sharrock further portrays the humanity in his characters. For some of the film it is just like watching four roommates laugh and bicker. We grow to care about them as people, leading to us ultimately investing in their individual stories. The end result is a film that is properly moving, rather than an ‘isn’t this terrible?’ platitude.
The refugees, at times, face awful prejudice in the face of the local islanders, who are portrayed mostly as inept caricatures. Some are more aggressive, some are well-meaning but just plain
clueless about how to talk to the new arrivals. The second camp are led by Boris (Kenneth Collard) and Helga (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen with an odd Scandi-Scottish hybrid of an accent), who run ‘cultural education’ classes for the refugees at a local centre. Their teachings are hilariously tone-deaf, but there is still a sweetness in the enthusiasm they show for helping the refugees.
Even in the more sinister side of the local residents, Sharrock finds a deadpan levity that cleverly mocks the prejudice whilst attempting to understand it. Case in point: a group of loud-mouthed local youths openly discuss the possibility that Omar is a terrorist or a rapist (because “that’s like a hobby for them”) in front of him, but then proceed to offer him a lift home because it’s cold outside.
What Sharrock does with this set-up is focus on the most grounded, mundane events, and then give them a heightened tone in both the writing and the direction. The approach is sustained throughout, allowing the film’s offbeat humour and poetic observations to land without feeling unnatural. A funny argument about Friends or the idiotic theft of a chicken can turn at a moment’s notice into profound moments of wisdom. “It’s a good thing they make dreams free” muses Farhad, with all the deep sadness and complexity that evokes, not long after a trivial joke.
It all flows remarkably well in the world Sharrock has created. This fictional island has its own distinctive feel that makes it almost dream-like to view. It is a carefully calibrated idea of limbo, where the refugees are not under direct threat but are left with oceans of time just to think about where they have been and where they will go. All around them is vast, empty space, a windswept landscape that simultaneously appears frighteningly bleak and starkly beautiful. It is a place so distinctive and remote that it feels like the refugees now exist in a manufactured bubble between two worlds.
As we progress, there is a tonal shift between the first and second halves of the film, where the comedy gives way to sheer horror, sadness and a dose of introspection. The carefully-calibrated score and cinematography, from Hutch Demouilpied and Nick Cooke respectively, give the second half a sinister, gripping energy too, which feels like a world away from the opening scene. It is a transition that Sharrock manages to keep just the right side of jarring, though, by the crucial decision to maintain a central focus on Omar throughout.
At times the characters around Omar seem more interesting, and certainly more entertaining, than he does. It is his backstory, though, the symbolic oud he carries around with him wherever he goes, and Omar’s permanently melancholic countenance that allow the film to transition between tones so well. His character is one capable of sliding between comedy and tragedy well, because his quiet sadness keeps the humour remains grounded in pain. So when we shift gear to darker territory it is not unexpected or unwelcome.
As Omar, El-Masry, who has had supporting roles in The Night Manager and Jack Ryan before this, is magnificent. It is a performance that allows the film’s distinctive humour to flourish around him, but that keeps a deep well of sadness just about visible throughout. As Omar reckons with his decision to leave Syria, and his guilt and angst-ridden relationship with his brother (who elected to stay in Syria and fight), El-Masry is incredibly moving is a man who’s stoicism is beginning to crumble under the weight of his internal conflict.
Omar is the emotional heart of the film, making regular calls to his parents and appearing always on the edge of emotional catharsis. He is what the film needs to remind the audience of the life or death importance of its subject. Limbo never belittles its characters, but loves them and treats them with all the laughter and tears we find in all facets of life. Throughout, Limbo is one the year’s most audacious, surprising films, and it is also one of its best.