No man is an island in Limbo, a glumly comic drama about a group of misfit refugees stranded in surreal exile in a remote Scottish backwater town. Building on the promise of his festival prize-winning debut feature Pikadero (2016), Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock displays a winning flair for small observational detail and minor-key mirth in his warm-hearted second feature, whose deadpan ironic tone invites comparison to Aki Kaurismaki or Jim Jarmusch.
Casting a refreshingly humane, wryly humorous eye on a politically contentious topic that is often sensationalized by the news media, this sweet-natured indie charmer could prove to be a break-out career-booster for Sharrock, who signed his first U.S. rep deal with CAA in July. Selected for the Cannes Label 2020 program, Limbo world premieres in Toronto this week, with a London Film Festival slot to follow in October.
A visually stunning landscape of treeless hills, deserted roads, wide-open sky and rocky coastline, the unnamed island location of Limbo is a key character in the story, serving both a dramatic and psychological function. For this nameless no man’s land, Sharrock chose Uist, a sparsely populated cluster of islands at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides peninsula, which lies about 40 miles north-west of the Scottish mainland. Limbo became the first ever film to shoot on Uist, though nearby Barra was used for the classic Ealing Studios comedy Whisky Galore! (1949).
The episodic plot of Limbo chiefly centers on Omar (Amir El-Masry), a refugee from war-torn Syria stranded in open-ended exile on a remote Scottish island as he waits to hear whether the British government will grant him asylum. He shares a dingy cottage with a motley crew of fellow migrants, including the eccentric Afghani Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two bickering brothers from West Africa, Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah). A skilled oud player in his past life, Omar now seems too depressed for music, haunted by guilt over the family he abandoned, especially older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif), who stayed behind to fight in Syria’s civil war. With poor cellphone coverage and limited landline access on the island, communication with his parents is sporadic and draining.
Drawing on his personal experiences of living in the Middle East, including working in refugee camps, Sharrock depicts the migrant experience with a refreshingly light touch, not exactly joyous but more farce than tragedy. Omar and his fellow exiles sit patiently through comically absurd “cultural awareness” lessons hosted by their well-meaning hosts, Helga (Sidse Babett-Knudsen of Borgen and Westworld fame) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). Even the casual racist abuse directed at these dark-skinned outsiders by the island’s young white natives soon dissolves into grudging mutual respect. In a whimsical running joke that strains credibility, Sharrock paints his refugee protagonists as obsessive fans of kitsch American and European pop culture, from Freddie Mercury to Ross and Rachel from Friends.
Limbo takes a more serious turn in its latter stages, when painful secrets and unexpected tragedies darken the otherwise playful mood. A climatic scene, which falls somewhere between lyrical daydream and magical realist hallucination, reconnects Omar with his long-lost family and helps him embrace his obligations as a proud cultural ambassador. This tonal shift jars a little, sitting uneasily with the levity that preceded it. Sharrock appears to be grasping at a profundity that is beyond his reach here. In doing so, he risks giving in to the sentimentalized melodrama that he has skillfully avoided up to this point.
All the same, Limbo is an appealing little gem overall, with a feel-good message about the kindness of strangers that is glib and simplistic but hard to resist. Rising British-Egyptian screen talent El-Masry gives a soulful, quietly hypnotic performance as Omar while Bhai exudes effortless comic energy as Farhad, his deadpan face a masterclass in mirthful minimalism, Buster Keaton with a hint of Borat. Babett-Knudsen is oddly underused in her glorified cameo role, despite being the most famous name in the cast.
But the real star here is the Scottish landscape. Shooting in the boxy 4:3 format, Sharrock and his cinematographer Nick Cooke capture the alien beauty of this stark island terrain in loving, lingering detail, with pleasing use of symmetrical framing and leisurely panoramic panning shots.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Production companies: Caravan Cinema, Film4
Cast: Amir El-Masry, Sidse Babett-Knudsen, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard
Director, screenwriter: Ben Sharrock
Producers: Irune Gurtubai, Angus Lamont
Cinematographer: Nick Cooke
Editors: Karel Dolak, Lucia Zucchetti
Music: Hutch Demouilpied
International sales: Protagonist