Limbo is one of the more remarkable British films of the last few years. Its subject matter of asylum-seekers in the UK is not in itself new, but its presentation here is – in several different ways. Although it is a fictional story, there is a real-life event which is some ways might prompt the ideas behind the fiction. In 2015, when the Conservative government in the UK agreed to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, a small number of families (15 or 24 according to varying reports) were sent to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay is a ferry and road/rail journey of around 2 hours away from Glasgow. The influx of even a small number of refugees was noted on an island with a resident population of only around 6,500. Fortunately the refugees appear to have settled in well.
Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo places a motley group of around 20 asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (the film’s credits suggest that scenes were shot on several islands in the group including North Uist). This carries to the extreme the idea of isolating asylum-seekers with larger towns several hours journey away (apart from air services). The asylum-seekers are all single men who are housed in what appear to be local council dwellings and the narrative focuses on a group of four men in one of the small houses. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work until they have been cleared to stay in the UK as refugees. Sharrock’s approach to his narrative is arguably both absurdist and fantastical, but in many ways actually makes a more authentic statement about what it means to be an asylum seeker than other more ‘realist’ films. The film is released in the UK by MUBI and after cinema screenings it is now available to stream on MUBI. The stream includes a recorded discussion between writer-director Sharrock and his four principal actors. It is worth noting that the actors were at first reluctant to read a script which they thought might be the same old story about migrants and ‘white saviours’ etc. However, having read the script, they all became enthusiastic and very much wanted to be part of the production.
The film opens with a close-up on a blackboard. The camera pulls back to a mid-shot of a woman facing the camera. She nods and a man turns on a portable CD player. Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started With a Kiss’ begins and the camera pulls back to a long shot showing the woman slowly begin to move her body in time with the music. We can see the man now as well and the couple appear to be in a small hall with a high ceiling and a long thin blackboard on the wall behind the couple and a large space in front. The screen shape is Academy, the squarish shape (1.37:1) coming back into vogue for isolated art films. I was so mesmerised by this opening, I failed to recognise one of my very favourite performers, Sidse Babett Knudsen the Danish star of the Borgen TV serials. Here with long straggly hair and wearing an ill-fitting blouse and calf-length skirt, she and Kenneth Collard play Helga and Boris who are employed to help asylum-seekers to understand British customs. This lesson is ‘Cultural Awareness 101: Sex – Is a Smile an Invitation?’. When the camera offers us a reverse shot of the twenty asylum-seekers they look bemused, mystified or stunned. The camera picks out the four men who will be principal characters. Sidse’s dancing is at once hilarious, oddly strained and yet still erotic. The pacing is very slow. Helga asks a question when the dancing ends and one man slowly raises his hand to answer but we then cut to the bleak (but very beautiful) landscape of the isles with heather-covered moorland, seawater inlets and hills in the background and then to an isolated phone-box in the middle of nowhere. This is the centre of the universe for the asylum-seekers, their only means of access to the outside world (apart from a hill-top where a mobile signal might be possible). I’ve described this opening in detail because the constituent elements are well-known/conventional but Sharrock presents them in such a distinctive way throughout the film that we are invited to think again about what we see.
Eventually, our focus will narrow to just two of the characters (though significant action will also involve the two West Africans in the house). Omar is a Syrian who always carries his grandfather’s oud everywhere he goes. In its case, the oud is like a guitar and initially Omar cannot play it because he has injured his wrist. When his dressing is removed he is still unable to play but more from the trauma of being parted from his family (though he came to the UK deliberately, hoping to send for his parents). Omar speaks very good English, as does the other main character, the older Farhad, an engaging Afghani man who has been waiting longer for his asylum application to be considered. I’m not going to spoil any more of the narrative and instead I’ll stick to general comments about Ben Sharrock’s approach to his story. I understand he spent some time in Syria after growing up in Edinburgh. This is his second feature following Pikadero (Spain 2015), filmed in Spanish and Basque – this is also available on MUBI.
Limbo does have a conventional narrative of sorts. Some viewers might read it as a showing a ‘character journey’ for Omar. It’s not giving too much away to suggest that he can only free himself from his own ‘limbo’ by playing his oud, preferably for an audience. But this also means coming to terms with aspects of his family relationships and Sharrock finds ways to explore this using fantasy sequences which I think work very well. I think this is a wonderful film. Parts of it are very funny. One or two moments are harrowing. It isn’t an overlong film at just over 100 minutes but it is slow, giving you more time to appreciate the camerawork by Nick Cooke and the pacing of the edits by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, as well as reflecting on what you are seeing. The performances are all very good but particularly the two central performances by Amir El-Masry as Omar and Vikash Bhai as Farhad. Bhai is from Leicester and El-Masry was brought up in London. I realised later that I had seen El-Masry in the John Stewart film Rosewater (US 2014). He has also appeared in a Star Wars film. Bhai has been in several UK TV shows. El-Masry speaks Egyptian Arabic and Bhai learned some Dari for his role as an Afghani man. I point this out simply to confirm that this is a carefully scripted film for actors rather than an attempt to cast non-professionals in a form of realist drama. The focus is directly on the experience of ‘limbo’, the pervading sense of being caught in a ‘waiting room’ with memories of where you have left and attempts to maintain hope about where you might get to. There is relatively little contact between the four men and the locals who are mainly friendly if sometimes insensitive. The locals include both Helga and Boris but also a local Glaswegian Sikh shopkeeper who has some good lines. Reviewers have variously compared the film’s presentational style to Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. I can see the possible links but this is very much Ben Sharrock’s (and his cast and crew’s) film.
One of the best films I’ve seen this year and one that I very much recommend, I hope you can find Limbo online or on a cinema screen. Perhaps community cinemas will book it? You can view the MUBI trailer below. The US trailer is, I think, misleadingly ‘oversold’. The MUBI one gives you a better idea of the film.