Release Date – 30th July 2021, Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 43 minutes, Director – Ben Sharrock
A group of asylum seekers try to make their way in a remote area of Scotland, unsure as to whether they will be granted asylum or not, or what is happening to their families back home.
Writer-director Ben Sharrock reveals an admirable talent for creating comedy within tragedy and uncertainty. He follows a group of asylum seekers, unsettled, waiting for asylum approval, in a remote part of Scotland. Particularly we see the world through the eyes of Omar (Amir El-Masry), trying to make his way as a musician while his parents are in Istanbul and his brother potentially still in Syria. Living in a cramped, undecorated house with fellow asylum seekers worried that they won’t be allowed to live in the UK. Reflecting their home, and their reluctance to properly settle, the village they’re placed into is almost empty. Empty of life, decoration, entertainment or proper help, like a dilapidated off-the-map Royston Vasey. Even the local shop – with one, monotone member of staff reminding people to “please refrain from urinating in the freezer aisle” – seems empty of produce, specifically the spices that Omar is looking for.
A local centre holds meetings for all the asylum seekers in the area. Each one scared, worried and fearing about their future. Not helped by the cringe-inducing leaders of the group Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and, particularly, Boris (Kenneth Collard). Both of whom are trying to teach the group the basics of living in the UK, being emotionally open and practicing job interview techniques. However, when everyone has been in the titular limbo for so long the energy vanishes from the room. They sit huddled together in the echoing room, being subjected to citizenship classes, and the slightly more bearable plastic chairs. In true darkly tragic comedy one member of the group admits “I used to be happy before I came here. I used to cry myself to sleep every night, but now I don’t have any tears left”. It’s a line that would fit right in with an emotional drama on the same subject, but induces tears of laughter, with a layered impact, that like many other jokes still have you chuckling minutes later.
On a number of occasions the slightly absurd, yet all too real, humour does have a slight air of a Taika Waititi film about it. Finding humour in loneliness and the isolation of characters, outsiders from the rest of the world, trying to find their place. There’s a bond formed with Omar and his fellow asylum seekers, not just because of the laughs that the actors, and screenplay, help to produce, but because of the heart and understanding that the film emits and allows the viewer to connect with. Amongst all of this there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud tear-inducing moments. Admittedly such happenings somewhat vanish in the second half of the film as the drama takes centre stage. This works well and makes for an engaging story thanks to the characters, and makes a difference from the dips in and out in the first half of the film, but it feels as if the humour has almost been abandoned. You do slightly wish you could see more mishaps with a stolen chicken in the household, or at least a bit more lightness for balance within this generally different tone.
However, even throughout the more present drama there’s still plenty of heart and warmth towards the characters. Consideration towards their situation and an emotional understanding with their thoughts and feelings. It comes through in layered performances that match a screenplay that has plenty of comedy which also doubles as tragic emotion of people lost within a spiralling system of uncertainty and fear. There are plenty of different things that can be taken away from Limbo, all thanks to Ben Sharrock’s careful exercising of his themes and ideas, alongside thoughtfulness for his characters and the situation that they find themselves in, in the middle of nowhere. It’s a fine subversion of tragedy into comedy, and there’s plenty of laughs to be found within Limbo, while not forgetting the fear and worry that runs through the people facing the lengthy asylum system.
Hilariously turning tragedy into comedy Limbo never forgets it’s heart and understanding of its characters, the humour may drop in the second half, but the drama is certainly still effective and provides more to the layered meanings and impacts of many lines of dialogue beforehand.