Limbo begins with a smile, and with a cautionary tale about the mixed signals that a smile can send. Its first image is a large, crudely chalked smiley-face on a blackboard, as Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard) rôle-play a scenario in which a man on the dance floor misconstrues a woman’s smile and overplays his advance. This lesson in reading (and misreading) cultural cues is being given to a bewildered all-male class of asylum seekers for whom the English language is foreign and the United Kingdom is still an alien environment requiring sensitive navigation. After all, one false step and these young men from trouble spots around the world could find themselves being summarily sent back.
Freddie Mercury fan and chicken obsessive Farhad (Vikash Bhai), from Afghanistan, believes that you can tell from someone’s eyes if they are smiling even if their mouth is covered. It is easy to guess in the case of the film’s protagonist Omar (Amir El-Masry), as he practically never smiles. He is a sombre, serious man, unhappily severed from his Syrian home and family, and unsure what life in Britain will bring, or even if he will have a life there. The ‘limbo’ of the title may refer to the fictitious island off the northern coast of Scotland where Omar and others have been deposited as they await, sometimes for years, the outcome of their asylum claims (and as they increase the small local population by 25%) – but the title also captures the liminal state in which they have become trapped, all exiles in the existential interstices between there and here, past and future.
The island is a geographical expression of pure bleakness – all muddy fields and windswept plains and icy beaches and aurora-tinged snowscapes, punctuated by the odd drab building and a single, dismal shop. The decision to box all these wide open spaces into Academy ratio serves only to make the environments simultaneously overwhelming and claustrophobic – a simple yet very precise effect in a film determined to capture the tunnel vision imposed on these men, lost in a system and between nations. Omar literally carries his past culture on his back, dragging with him everywhere the oud that he has inherited from his grandfather – but in this new milieu, he can no longer bring himself to play it. From overseas, his relatives keep reminding him of the saying that “a musician who doesn’t play music is dead” – but in this peculiar purgatory, Omar really does feel dead, and it will take a ghostly encounter with his estranged brother Nabil (Kais Nashif), himself caught in a different limbo, for the young oud player tentatively to bury his past sorrow and to resume his instrument and his life, even with all the uncertainties remaining in place.
Written and directed by Ben Sharrock (Pikadero, 2015), Limbo presents itself formally as a comedy in the deadpan mould of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson. Characters appear in wide shot, engulfed by their surroundings, only enhancing the incongruity of these strangers in a strange land. Encounters with passive-aggressive locals tend towards the surreal. And as old episodes of the TV show Friends play constantly in the house that Farhad and Omar share with Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), these four engage in their own contrasting sort of sitcom, rooted in frustration and disappointment and creeping despair. The tone here is so carefully calibrated that Limbo will fill you with sadness even as it puts a smile on your face – albeit one that is complex and difficult to read.
© Anton Bitel