On a Hebridean island, weather-beaten and foggy, a group of men sit in a community centre watching in silence as music plays from a tiny stereo. A man and a woman (Kenneth Collard and Sidse Babett Knudsen) dance awkwardly in front of them. When the man attempts a kiss, he is quickly slapped sharply across the face and the music is turned off as the audience watches on, one sinking his face into his hands.
So begins Ben Sharrock’s Limbo, the blackboard proclaiming that the class is “Cultural Awareness 101”, designed to help the group of asylum seekers assimilate into their new lives in a Britain that wears its “hostile environment” with pride. Focusing on Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian musician who is relatively new to the island, and his fellow roomates from different countries and circumstances, Limbo is a drama with a shard of black comedy running through it’s core.
Sharrock’s portrayal of the unnamed Scottish island is not a positive one. Static shots of empty country roads linger on the screen before they slowly, achingly, zoom in as fog gathers on the bleak fields and empty, windswept beaches. The only place that has phone signal is the top of a hill, and the local supermarket’s spice section consists entirely of ketchup, mustard and soy sauce — when Omar asks if they have sumac, he is met with a blank gaze from the solitary employee. It is worlds removed from the countries the men have moved from and from the rest of society, — as it is cynically but perhaps correctly described — by one of the men as “designed to break us”.
Despite the isolation, Omar develops a inner-community with the three other men he shares an empty house with. There’s Farhad (Vikash Bhai) who carries around a photo of Freddie Mercury and sports a moustache that rivals his idol’s, an older man that Omar lives with and who tries to teach him the ways of life on this bleak island, insisting on taking on the role of Omar’s manager/agent and persuading him to take part in an open mic night. Along with Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), two brothers who spend a large amount of time arguing over the question of Ross and Rachel’s “break” in Friends, the four men wait out the days together; they eagerly await the arrival of the postman, or for a chance to call home from the phone box on the side of a road.
There is a warmth and tenderness that runs throughout Limbo, whether it’s the panda hat that Farhad wears without a care in the world, or the gentle, if misplaced, praise from the Cultural Awareness classes. But Sharrock never strays from reminding us just what these men have lost in seeking safety, and throwaway lines cut deep in their sadness and hopelessness.
An exciting and unique voice, Sharrock and the talented cast ensure that Limbo delicately balances the line between comedy and drama, evoking tears as often as laughter in this poignant British film.
Limbo screened as part of the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival 2020 on October 16th
by Rose Dymock