Deadpan, absurdist comedy may not seem like an obvious genre choice for a story about the cruel, grinding bureaucracy of the UK’s asylum process. But five years since the playful oddness of his debut feature, Pikadero, Ben Sharrock returns in style with Limbo.
The Scottish director again demonstrates a measured human sensibility, this time with the plight of a group of refugees seeking the chance for new lives in Britain. Respectfully toying with the bounds of political correctness, whilst simultaneously laying waste to its hypocrisy with heavy doses of satirical humour, it’s a tightrope line which Sharrock walks with relish.
Knowing when to turn frowns upside down and when to keep his distance, Limbo opens with a smiley face drawn in chalk on a blackboard. The next shot frames a woman’s face, forcibly neutral. Later, the film’s two main characters, stifled musician Omar (a very strong turn from Amir El-Masry) and Freddie Mercury superfan Farhad (Vikash Bhai), will try to guess whether the other is grinning or frowning by covering their mouths, judging happiness or sadness by their eyes alone.
Why all this focus on facial expressions? Because, as is summed up by the title of a cultural awareness 101 lesson, they never tell the whole picture. “Sex: is a smile an invitation?” A sour-faced Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) has to rebuff the touchy-feely advances of Boris (Kenneth Collard) with an exaggerated wag of the finger. But it is the awkward, disbelieving looks from the assembled class in reverse shot that prompt the laughs. However well-intentioned this course of integration may be, its tone-deaf patronising belittles its pupils.
The film, however, neither sneers at, nor pities, nor wallows in this situation – or its subjects. Instead, from first to last, Sharrock – who also penned the script – gently tickles ribs while giving a frequent punch to the guts without ever really going for the jugular. Though out of sight, out of mind may be the go-to strategy for many when it comes to refugees, especially in light of recent political developments, each of these men has a story, a past, nuance, talent, intelligence and desires. And in his dedication to their native languages, attention to character detail and development of each, Sharrock does them and his film credit.
The respect he shows them does not match the less than warm welcome they receive from most of the locals of the sparsely populated Uist Islands, flung off the north west coast of Scotland. Stuck in shabby hostels, the wind, rain and snow outside are unrelenting. Even cinematographer Nick Cooke’s squared aspect cuts off any chance of us enjoying the brutal, beautiful landscape. But it keeps us focused. And as the boys watch repeat episodes of Friends, queue at the one phone box on the island to make calls home and eagerly eye the postman whenever letters are due, the thudding monotony, hopelessness and claustrophobia of it all begins to take its toll.
Omar, who carries his oud (an instrument a little like a lute) around with him at all times but never plays, exemplifies the film’s title more than any other. Fraught relations with a brother who stayed in Syria to fight and parents who push and pull for him to stay or return, his static purgatory is as spiritual, personal as it is literal. Although a devastating discovery and the departure of a dear friend force the floodgates to open a little, Sharrock’s resistance to easy answers or an easy way out is in-keeping with a tale in which the arbitrary flick of a pen, a stamp on a letter, can change someone’s life irrevocably – and yet may never come.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63