By rights, Ben Sharrock's second feature Limbo should have opened last year, the better to be grouped with that smattering of pre-pandemic works - the superb, short-lived sitcoms Home and Don't Forget the Driver, the smart Netflix pick-up His House - which suggested British creatives had finally grasped how to dramatise the migrant experience with compassion and wit in the place of didacticism and piety. Sharrock here pushes the fish-out-of-water trope to a geographical extreme, relocating a mixed bag of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers to the Orkneys or thereabouts, where they are to be schooled by the authorities in the ways of the New World. The joke underpinning Limbo is that, to all outward appearances, this might as well be another planet entirely: remote, overcast, windswept-to-frozen, at every turn unpromising. Sharrock's ultra-Highlands have much in common with the Nord-Pas de Calais of Bruno Dumont's recent Quinquin projects - even the housing looks the same, set back upon slopes a distance from the road - but his travellers have been accorded greater voice and agency than those shuffling through the Dumont universe. Or, at least, as much agency as those caught in an administrative holding cycle, awaiting their ultimate fate, can have. They place phone calls to the loved ones from whom they've been separated; they polish their English by bingeing Friends on DVD (stopping to debate, as many have before them, whether Ross and Rachel really were on a break); and they stumble into flummoxing encounters with jovially suspicious locals. They are both left to their own devices, and caught in an absurd bind. Unable to seek employment, they have all the free time in the world; but because they're at the end of the world, they have nothing very much to do with that leisure.
Another useful point of reference might be Aki Kaurismaki's comedies of the last decade. As in 2011's Le Havre and 2017's The Other Side of Hope, the migrants here initially look to have been conceived as mordant sight gags, amusing anomalies. A musician back home in Syria, Omar (Amir El-Masry) insists on carrying round an oud he hasn't played for years, literal baggage; his pal Farhad (Vikash Bhai) sports a fulsome moustache grown in tribute to his idol Freddie Mercury. Yet Limbo proves funnier and more openly expressive than Kaurismaki's acquired-taste drollery. There's some priceless material about this community's sole tourist trap (dolphin tours), and you know Sharrock is on the right comedic path when he sends on TV funnyface Kenneth Collard (Detectorists, Cuckoo) to inform Omar that a man called Alan once won a goat for his open-mic night rendition of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies". Limbo is sadder, too, when it needs to be. Asked in class to deploy the past tense in a sentence, one migrant pipes up with "I used to cry myself to sleep at night, but now I have no tears left." (He gets a round of applause for it, which seems inappropriate.) Whatever first strikes the eye as quirky gets offset by Omar's own slide into depression, very affectingly described by El-Masry: a realisation that everything this man wants and needs is elsewhere, far beyond the scope of Sharrock's deliberately spartan, squared-off frames. (As it is, an abandoned farmhouse will serve as a point of communion between Omar and the memory of the brother he left behind, clinching evidence of Sharrock's commitment to furnishing his characters with an inner life.) If the camera initially appears standoffish - sniggering from the back of class as Collard grinds up against schoolmarm Sidse Babett Knudsen to Hot Chocolate's "It Started with a Kiss" - these frames are soon filled by close-ups of men in the middle of nowhere, uncertain what their next move will have to be. Via that slow push-in, and the accretion of detail that follows from it - not to mention a growing sense these lives have been put on hold, like the calls the asylum seekers put in to the functionaries who will determine their status - Limbo converts a perilously sitcommish premise into fully dimensional, wholly heartfelt cinema. The excited industry chatter around Sharrock is not for naught, one concludes: it takes real nous to sustain a tone as bittersweet as this.
Limbo is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via MUBI UK next month.