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Limbo

Following refugees awaiting their new lives on a small Scottish island, this British blend of drama and comedy is equally wry, clear-eyed, smart and poignant.
By Sarah Ward
January 13, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
January 13, 2022
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Describing a dance and a state of uncertainty alike, limbo is one of those always-intriguing words. Many terms boast multiple meanings, but this one skirts two ends of the spectrum — the party-fuelled joy of a parade of people trying to pass under a bar while bending over backwards, and the malaise of being stuck waiting and not knowing. Both require a degree of flexibility, though, to either complete physical feats or weather the fickleness of life (or, in limbo's religious usage, of being caught in an oblivion between heaven and hell). It's no wonder then that British writer/director Ben Sharrock chose the word for his second feature, following 2015's Pikadero. His Limbo lingers in a realm where men are made to contort themselves, biding one's time anticipating a decision is the status quo and feeling like you've been left in a void is inescapable.

The fancy footsteps here are of the jumping-through-hoops kind, as Limbo ponders a revelatory question: what happens when refugees are sent to a Scottish island to await the results of their asylum applications? There's zero doubting how telling the movie's moniker is; for Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry, Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker) and his fellow new arrivals to Scotland, there's little to do in this emptiness between the past and the future but wait, sit at the bus stop, check out the children's playground and loiter near the pay phone. That, and navigate the wide range of reactions from the locals, which veer from offensive to thoughtful. Everything about the situation demands that Omar and his companions make all the expected moves, but it also forces them to potter around in purgatory and stomach whatever is thrown at them to do so.

In Omar's case, he's made the trip with an actual case — physically, that is, thanks to his prized possession. He's brought his grandfather's oud with him, which he rarely lets slip from his grasp, and so he feels its weight where he goes. It's a canny part of Limbo's script in two ways. Whatever they're fleeing in search of a better life, every refugee has a case to be welcomed into safer lands that they carry around with them, but Sharrock manifests the idea in a tangible sense. With Omar's musical dreams, which the beloved oud also represents, in limbo as well, the ever-present instrument additionally acts as a constant reminder of the sacrifices that asylum seekers make in leaving their homes, even when there's no other option, and the costs they pay when they're met with less-than-open arms, then left waiting for their new existence to begin.

Just as the term limbo means so much, so does that oud — and so does the feature it's in. A film can be heartbreaking, tender, insightful and amusing all at once, and Limbo is indeed all of those things. It's both dreamlike and lived-in, too, a blend that suits its title and story — and also the mental and emotional state shared by Omar and his other asylum seekers as they eke out their hope and resilience day after unchanging day, all while roaming and roving around an island that may as well be another world. The Scottish landscape around them looks like it could grace a postcard, and Sharrock has cinematographer Nick Cooke (Make Up) box it into an almost-square frame to make it resemble vacation snaps. That choice of 1.33:1 aspect ratio also confines the movie's characters in another fashion, of course, offering a blatant visual flipside to the holiday-perfect splendour; being trapped anywhere is bleak, even if it appears picturesque.

Omar has company in his misery: in the run-down house he's installed into, Afghani Farhad (Vikash Bhai, Hanna) is more optimistic, while Abedi (Kwabena Ansah, Enterprice) from Ghana and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi, Cherry) from Nigeria wait the wait with them. The biggest events in their routines come via talks by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Translators) and Boris (Kenneth Collard, Fanny Lye Deliver'd), government officials, about appropriate behaviour and 'cultural awareness' in the fresh lives they haven't get been given permission to start. If hell is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre coined, limbo is being told what to do by other people while lacking the means and opportunity to do it.

A film can be both heavy and light simultaneously as well, which is another of Limbo's strengths, with every dose of biting truth counterbalanced by a wry streak. Sharrock sees both seriousness and levity in his narrative, his characters and their plights, and recognises the nightmarish and the beautiful in tandem. Obviously, the latter especially applies to the feature's aforementioned haunting cinematography, which lenses a place that keeps Omar pals physically in limbo with a probing eye, but it also ruminates on the small delights. Limbo is a film about people first and foremost, and also spies the solace they bring each other — and the catharsis they find when they need to, including when they're so far from home, not really by choice, and endeavour to find themselves a new one.

In a movie that's witty and perceptive, affectionate and poignant, and unwavering and clear-eyed, the tonal seesaw that Sharrock rides and perfects is just that: perfection. Trauma, racism and punishment by bureaucracy sit beside friendship, Freddie Mercury obsessions and binge-watching Friends; yes, whether Ross and Rachel were on a break comes up. Limbo's casting is perfection also, because so much hangs upon El-Masry's ability to convey the whirlwind of emotions torturing Omar inside. He's trying to reconcile where he's stuck now with what he's left, and watching him fight that battle — in scenes where he's calling home to talk to his mother especially — epitomises the film at its most moving. That's the movie overall, too, lingering as it is between knowing what's right, best, smart and safe, and wanting what the heart wants when blighted by pain and dreariness. Limbo is a feature about coping with that dance, and it's something to willingly dwell on.

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