WHats off to a wholly wonderful second feature film from British director Ben Sharrock – witty, poignant, wonderfully composed and shot, moving and even strangely captivating. Despite an elegant tongue-in-cheek style established from the start, Sharrock quickly gets you to invest in the characters and care deeply about what happens to them. Limbo is about refugees and asylum seekers in Britain, and it’s internationalist and not parochial work: a film with a daring worldview but also as sweet and intimate as a much-loved sitcom. It reminded me at various times of Aki KaurismÃ¤ki or Elia Suleiman or Bill Forsyth, with a distinct twist of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I.
The setting is an incredibly dark and strikingly beautiful Scottish island, fictional and largely deserted, almost resembling a setting from Waiting For Godot (but partly filmed on Uist in the Outer Hebrides). Here, a number of refugees from Syria and elsewhere – single men with no families – have been relocated to run-down hostels with minimal living allowance. Forbidden to do any paid work, they just have to wait for the official word to see if they can stay. And as the narrator says at the beginning of Casablanca: they waitâ¦ and waitâ¦ and wait. The situation is taken in the broad sense real life.
There’s Farhad (Vikash Bhai), who came to Britain largely because he’s a superfan of Freddie Mercury, a mostly gay or at least stoic guy from Afghanistan. There’s Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), brothers from Nigeria who are still arguing – once after watching DVDs of Friends, about Ross thinking he was “on hiatus” from dating Rachel. , then a serious falling out over the viability of Wasef’s dream of playing football for Chelsea.
Most dramatic is Omar – an extremely sweet and intelligent performance by Amir El-Masry – who left Syria with his family. But his mother and father are still in Turkey while Omar has made the bet to leave to try to reside in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, his brother returned to Syria – or never left in the first place – to fight Assad. Omar is stricken with repressed rage, guilt and doubt of having cut off his Syrian identity to spend his days on this island lost in the middle of nowhere. Omar is (or was) a brilliant musician, soloist on oud, string instrument. He can’t play at the moment, supposedly due to a wrist injury, but that’s just an excuse – he’s stuck creatively and spiritually. El-Masry superbly expresses Omar’s fear of playing the oud in these miserable circumstances would be an act of futility and disloyalty. He carries his oud in its case, as Farhad says, like a coffin for his soul.
Sharrock superbly suggests the growing atmosphere of fear and anger that hangs like a cloud cover: Men believe they are being deliberately kept in this phase of depression and hopelessness so that they crack up and ask to be sent home. Their contact with the state comes in the form of fun theatrical lectures they receive from two government officials, Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who teach them how to apply for menial jobs over the phone and how correct and respectful way of behaving with women while dancing with them in a nightclub – a particularly bizarre instruction because these poor lonely men will never come close to something as exciting as this. Their inner lives are largely a closed book, although Farhad lets something out about his life at home.
The emotional center of the film is Omar and El-Masry’s formidable performance – especially in the heart-wrenching conversations he has with his mother on the phone, demanding detailed recipes in a doomed attempt to eat exactly the way he does. ate at home. He cherishes the design of his oud, the front of which is a stylized representation of their garden in Damascus. The scene in which he shows all of this to Farhad is almost unbearably sad. This is Sharrock’s superlative film making.