The first scene of Ben Sharrock’s melancholy comedy Limbo takes place at a refugee holding center in the Scottish islands. To teach a group of male refugees how to interact once (or if?) they enter British life, two dorky counselors do a stone-faced dance with each other, demonstrating acceptable displays of affection. They’re wearing the ’80s-ish clothing of the hopelessly awkward, and their boogie goes on far too long. The man starts to get his arms into it. The camera cuts to the room full of asylum seekers, who watch expressionlessly.
In fact, the main action of the entire first half of Limbo is “watching expressionlessly.” What else is there to do in purgatory? Scottish writer-director Sharrock wants to avoid the clichés of refugee dramas — the dangerous trip, the teary reunion — so he has cut all that movement out. Instead of showing us rescue or escape or crossing borders, Limbo unfolds in surreal images of still pale landscapes or still beige interiors. These 20 or so refugees have already fought their way to Europe, and now they are suspended in a bureaucratic holding pattern. Will they be granted asylum or sent back? They are stateless, they are nowhere. They have nothing to do but wait.
Our focus is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a gifted musician who has managed to get out of Syria with his grandfather’s oud, though he currently seems unable to play it. His housemates are the eccentric optimist Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two brothers, the soccer-mad Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah). Limbo was shot in the Uists, a set of particularly remote islands in the Outer Hebrides. It’s not always entirely clear in these chilly, salt-bleached places what is sea and what is sky. The refugees, who have come from all over, are surrounded by an oddball collection of locals, many of them a bit bonkers (like the young people who do doughnuts in their car out on the sands), some garrulously racist. The more the Scots pull weird faces, the more the refugees let their own go blank. In interviews, Sharrock has spoken about his love for The Band’s Visit, and you can see him borrowing the fish-out-of-water strategies from that movie here — particularly Eran Kolirin’s delicate use of embarrassment and the comic deployment of slacks and mustaches.
Sharrock and his cinematographer, Nick Cooke, create a kind of diorama flatness in every scene: Omar’s cohort stares at a television in an underfurnished room; the four stand in artful compositions, waiting to use a pay phone that sits glowing on the island’s wide moor. The milky light that slides in over the Outer Hebrides doesn’t seem to cast shadows, so figures become sculptural, the white air isolating and showcasing them like a gallery’s white walls. The film is full of these tableaux that emphasize that the men, the islands, and Omar’s own inner landscape are all caught in between.
For the first chunk of the film, all this stylization — even in its most beautiful shots — can actually be a little stifling. The control is so evident. And while Limbo treats the island as a character, it can treat the characters like props. Sharrock’s comedy depends heavily on (1) ugly ’80s pullovers and (2) the refugees staring deadpan at the folly of those around and among them. To gin up enough folly, Sharrock has to make nearly everyone in the movie … kind of an idiot. The townspeople and instructors are dingbats, Farhad is a goofball (he steals a rooster, which he names after Freddie Mercury), and Wasef insists he’s headed to London to play Premier League soccer for Chelsea. Sharrock has been scrupulous about avoiding one set of clichés in writing his refugee characters, but the more he strives to be comic the more his own script lets him down. For instance, he has the housemates watch Friends DVDs and argue about whether Ross and Rachel were on a break. We’re meant to be tickled by the incongruity, but man, it’s a lazy joke.
There’s a moment, though, that turns the movie decisively from one mode to another. For the long first section, the film glides along with cool amusement, its carefully curated surreality tempered and arch. But when one of the four men is taken away to be deported, the whole film changes. At first, the movie doesn’t register the crack in their world: Sharrock’s icy palette stays the same for a while, and his deliberate compositions do not, for a time, alter. And yet the comedy has dropped out a hole in the bottom of the movie. The stunned stillness in the actors’ eyes no longer seems like Wes Andersonian poker face but the result of a barrage of terrible blows.
The deportation gives the movie a seam down the middle. The first half is handsome but coy, the second is messier but stronger and fiercer too. The ice that’s been encasing Omar starts to break, and the film itself starts to overflow — freed from ironic anhedonia, it begins to work out the way it can actually convey meaning. After withholding expressive performance from us for nearly the entire movie, Sharrock unleashes an astonishing scene in which El-Masry has a conversation with his brother, who has stayed behind to fight in Syria. The careful framing is gone, and the camera curls up on El-Masry’s shoulder like a cat. The shot can’t seem to get close enough to him, drawn by the actor’s suddenly rich portrait of a warm personality that has been frozen till then.
I rewound after I’d seen the movie to watch the first section again. I wanted to see if the gorgeous second half would change how I saw those first scenes, hoping I would find the wrong-foot, downbeat comedy darker or funnier. Would Farhad’s knitted panda hat knock me over if I gave it another chance? Short answer: No. But on that repeat viewing, the scenes did seem much more frightening. The control the actors exert to remain expressionless becomes a pressure in the film; once you’ve learned how prickly and joyful El-Masry can be, for instance, his zoned-out passivity in the first section seems like the glassy aspect of a man in a coma. It’s an emergency; can’t anyone see that? His still face is actually a red flag, a fire alarm, a waving hand sinking beneath the waves. It isn’t limbo this man is trapped in. It’s hell.
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