The fractured chain of wind-battered islands where the north-west coast of Scotland fragments into the North Atlantic Ocean are officially called the Outer Hebrides. But the old Gaelic name for the mountainous outcrops is more appropriate when considering the aching dislocation of Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock’s Limbo.
Loosely translated, Innse Gall means ‘islands of the strangers’. The film thrusts us into this forgotten, snow-lashed corner of the world where a gaggle of lost souls are dumped, awaiting visas. The oddities of islander life are as bemusing to these new arrivals as they are in turn to the largely friendly locals. It’s by zooming in on this specificity that Sharrock, who also studied Arabic and spent time living in Syria, avoids uncomfortable questions about appropriation. This is a very Scottish take on a global situation.
British-Egyptian actor Amir El-Masry plays Omar, a young Syrian musician whose unplayed oud was once his livelihood, but now only represents the trauma that led him to this place. His wildly encouraging Afghani roommate, Freddie Mercury obsessive Farhad (Vikash Bhai), urges him to play it again – as do Nigerian brothers Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), robustly debating old Friends plotlines in the home they all share.
Limbo opens with a delightful moment of off-kilter comedy: a surreal English language lesson and tutorial on consent (delivered by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard on fine form) set to Hot Chocolate’s It Started with a Kiss. Then things become more fraught, as local teenagers hurl racist and homophobic insults at Omar from a car burning donuts on a forlorn beach. Still, they give him a lift back into town. There’s no simplistic read on ‘us and them’ here. Omar himself falls foul of poorly chosen language in a deadpan moment between him and a Sikh supermarket attendant from Glasgow. When asking for sumac, the ‘spice’ options are mustard or tomato sauce. It sets up a gorgeous pay-off later that acts as a salve when the film sets sail into sore-hearted territory.
It’s a credit to Sharrock that Limbo can hold this multiplicity, flexing to accommodate tonal changes in much the same way cinematographer Nick Cooke’s aspect ratio shifts to embrace the astounding scenery. There are shots and simple moments here that will break and remake you. Sublime.