LFF 2020: Limbo

Limbo is one of the best British films in years. Our review from LFF 2020.

British government policy, and the manner in which it is driven by an increasingly rabid right wing press, has succeeded effortlessly in creating an abhorrent “hostile environment” for migrants and asylum seekers. You only need to see how the press hysteria this summer – as refugees risked their lives sailing across the channel to be with their families already settled in Britain – managed to distract entire swathes of the population from an ongoing pandemic to understand how deep rooted the country’s xenophobia is, and how the normalisation of far right policies has merely continued a process of dehumanisation towards those resettling here. 

Limbo doesn’t directly mention the hostile environment that Theresa May boasted the Conservative government would create nearly ten years ago, but it’s an incredibly vivid depiction of how deeply engrained into immigrant life those policies have become – transforming the refugee experience into more of a Kafkaesque tightrope than it ever was. Beneath the absurdist comedic sensibility of writer/director Ben Sharrock’s film, which skews far closer to the deadpan surrealism of Yorgos Lanthimos and Aki Kaurismaki than the social realism the premise suggests, lies a sobering look at post-hostile environment Britain through the eyes of those who moved here in the hope of a better life. It’s an instant British classic, but considering the real world systemic failures that are echoed in this story, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we should be proud of.

Set on a fictitious island somewhere off the coast of Scotland, Limbo follows Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee who is waiting for his visa application to be processed so he can head to the mainland to find work. A famous musician back in his homeland, he now only has contact with his former life via the payphone located in a deserted area on the island, which he makes the arduous trek to daily, with the rest of his day consumed by courses on assimilating to British culture, and watching pirated DVDs of Friends with the three refugees he’s left to share a house with.

The offbeat tone is initially disarming, but Sharrock’s deadpan, absurdist approach to satire provides a fresh, but nonetheless scathing, approach to dismantling the British immigration system and the country’s perception of migrants. And it’s right there from the opening sequence, where the leader of the “cultural awareness class” (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) gives a tutorial in consent, which manages to hide a damning commentary about how western society has come to view Syrian refugees as rapists who need to adapt to a more conservative culture. And nothing should prepare you for Sharrock’s brand of satirisation more than the fact this plays out entirely as an awkward dance routine scored to Hot Chocolate’s “It Started with a Kiss”, a skewering of the ridiculousness of Britain’s cultural norms in contrast with the normalcy of those they deem in need of assimilating.

This absurdism makes for a unique outsider’s view of Britain, where the casual nature of hostility (racial slurs thrown around in everyday conversation, a sign welcoming refugees being defaced overnight) can feel surreal due to how much it has been normalised. You get the sense Sharrock is also taking delight making fun of the liberal arguments that claim Britain is at its heart a warm, welcoming nation – Knudsen’s cultural awareness teacher refuses to budge from her belief about Britain as a meritocracy where anybody can achieve their goals, and even the seemingly friendly locals Omar meets initially denigrate him as being part of an ISIS sleeper cell. Omar is kitted out in a thick raincoat for the majority of the running time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to think of this as a deliberate fashion choice, the film acting as a grounded response to the fantasy of immigrant life presented in Paddington – only here, the kind hearted, raincoat wearing migrant is confronted with locals who can never embrace him, never growing beyond their initial “othering” perception.

Sharrock’s influences are in plain sight throughout. He may not have borrowed Aki Kaurismaki’s colour palette, but he does share the Finnish filmmaker’s inherent humanism. Kaurismaki’s recent films, Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope, similarly offered an empathetic study of migrants being failed by bureaucracy, albeit buried beneath an almost alien deadpan sensibility that Sharrock has found translates very well into English. Limbo doesn’t just feel like an English translation of those films though – its political commentary is sharper, and its humour less good natured. As strange as it may seem from the outside, it’s far more grounded than the films and filmmakers which appear to have inspired it. 

Limbo plays at the London Film Festival and will be released on MUBI at a later date.

You can read more of our LFF coverage here.

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

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