Hilarious yet melancholy, Ben Sharrock's beautiful, ambitious debut shines a light on the absurdity of Britain's immigration system
Like many aspects of day-to-day life in Tory Britain, the casual cruelty and ineptitude of our asylum system is one of those things that would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. It's this absurdity that writer-director Ben Sharrock taps in to for his triumphant debut feature Limbo, a film that possesses the same kind of balance of tragic melancholy and deadpan hilarity that defines the work of Nordic masters like Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Andersson, shot through with a subtle but righteous rage at the UK's treatment of refugees.
Set on a windswept island in the Outer Hebrides, Limbo takes us in to the lives of four migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Ghana, who live together in a small house, waiting for their letters to confirm the success of their asylum applications. Our lead among the four is Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry), who spends his days carrying around his oud (a sort of Middle Eastern lute) and worrying about his brother, who stayed behind to fight.
El-Masry is a compelling lead, and he’s ably supported by a series of hilarious and touching performances. Limbo contains the biggest cinematic laughs I’ve had all year, Sharrock’s witty writing matched by perfect line deliveries and imaginative shots that pack in extra visual jokes right in the middle of a gag. As well as simply being incredibly funny, these jokes add a warmth to proceedings that extends from Omar’s housemates – in particular sweet Freddie Mercury fan Farhad (Vikash Bhai) – to the island’s Scottish locals.
In one brilliant scene, a car of four local teens pulls up to Omar, asking him if he’s a terrorist or a rapist, before promptly offering him a lift back to his house so that he doesn’t get caught in the rain. Sharrock makes powerful use of this contrast between these un-PC kids who still ultimately see Omar as a fellow human, and the more studied language of the authorities who couldn’t care if he lived or died.
Amongst the laughs, Sharrock makes sure we never forget the brutality of the British asylum system and the lives it costs. A boxy aspect ratio traps the characters, and the rugged wild beauty of the island is always far away or at the edge of frame, the freedom it represents kept at an arm’s length. Gorgeous, ambitious camerawork is everywhere in Limbo – there isn’t a single element of filmmaking here that lacks love and attention. In what has already been a banner year for debut movies, from Babyteeth to Residue to Saint Maud, this is another shining light that promises exceptional things from a thrilling new director.
Limbo was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.Where to watch