It’s a landscape that takes no prisoners. The wind howls constantly, blasting everything in its path: there’s no trees and the stark flatness seems to go on forever. It’s the epitome of no man’s land. But people live here – locals who are more than acclimatised to the rigours of life on a remote Scottish island, and a group of refugees from all over the world, waiting to find out if they have a future in this country. They’re not prisoners, but they can’t go anywhere. All they can do is wait. And wait.
They’re all miles from their homelands such as Syria and Afghanistan, housed in basic, grim hostels with just a minimal allowance to live off. Working to earn money is prohibited, so they while away their days and months in each other’s company and attending well-meaning classes designed to help them integrate into the community. Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a regular in the queue for the solitary payphone so he can talk to his family in Turkey: all he wants is to hear their voices but, at the same time, he has to conceal the reality of his life from them – the unwelcoming locals, his guilt at abandoning his identity and culture and his overwhelming sense of failure. The one thing he has left to hold onto is his oud (a stringed instrument), which he carries around with him.
But Limbo is not the dour tale of unrelenting sadness you might expect. True, it poses many difficult questions about identity and nationalism, but sophomore director Ben Sharrock, who also wrote the screenplay inspired by his own experiences in refugee camps, walks the path between heartbreak and hope with impressive delicacy, combining wit, compassion and a deadpan style that’s hard to resist. He also nods in the direction of other filmmakers, the shadow of Bill Forsyth hanging constantly over that isolated phone box. Humanity is found where you least expect it, in this case in some joyously straight faced scenes involving a gruff supermarket owner whose one small act speaks volumes.
At the centre of it all is El-Masry’s performance, mature and sensitive, desperately clinging to what’s left of his former life yet knowing the chances of ever seeing his home again are fading away before his eyes. Waiting for what the future may or may not bring is just as agonising and he conveys all this with the bare minimum of dialogue, the camera searching his face to reveal his feelings and a fundamental warmth that, despite the circumstances, never flickers out.
Instead of painting the proverbial bigger picture, Sharrock allows us to invest in smaller, individual stories so that we care about the bigger issues lurking beneath his story by default. It’s a delicate blend of sadness, drollery and irresistible ridiculousness set in a landscape which doesn’t welcome anybody with open arms. But, like Limbo itself, it has a beauty all of its own.
Drama | Cert: PG | MUBI | Cinemas | 30 July 2021 | Dir. Ben Sharrock | Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Ola Orebiyi, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kenneth Collard
Watch our interview with director/writer Ben Sharrock and actor Amir El-Masry here.