In Limbo

By - Monday 20th May, 2013

Croydon = Purgatory. Predictable gag-premise or an unusually profound statement? James Naylor went to watch Limbo to find out

It’s hard enough trying to review a film that’s not even half-finished. Only 12 minutes of Limbo exist so far (part of the purpose of the screening I attended was to raise awareness and find finance for a completed film) and those minutes are the first 12, making it more than slightly difficult to pass judgement on the middle or end.  But it’s even harder when the place you call home is also standing in for everyone’s second least favourite astral plane of punishment and torment – Purgatory.

You can see what I saw of it here right now:

Here’s the set-up: Limbo is a comedy-drama that tells the story of a young man, killed in unknown circumstances who wakes up to find himself in purgatory. Understandably nonplussed by the situation, our hero looks to find a way out, meeting other souls and, of course, angels and demons along the way.

I was gripped and felt, exactly as intended, rather disappointed that I couldn’t see the rest.

Technically speaking the film is very impressive; especially considering the tiny budget which, I assume, has so far been expended on it. Some very professional editing ties together some excellent photography, and a smart script is rendered through solid, capable performances from the entire cast. From the very beginning, Cooney (director, supporting actor, and something of a one-man film machine) inspires confidence by side-stepping so many of the errors associated with films in the “nano-budget” or “zero-budget” category and executing with the skill and flair of an established director. Not only are the all-too-often overlooked details of colour-grading and sound design strong but, most importantly of all, Cooney keeps his script pleasingly sparse. The film’s many humorous moments are delivered effectively, fast, and paced well with the dramatic content; no mean feat. Nothing is allowed to linger and the citizens of Purgatory are realistically and engagingly terse communicators. They all possess character affectations that already make the viewer want to know more about them. After the 12 minutes run-time had elapsed, I was gripped and felt, exactly as intended, rather disappointed that I couldn’t see the rest. I can’t say the same for every film  I’ve watched recently.

It was enormously enjoyable and its companion piece, “Walking in Croydon” (a homage to the music video for ‘Walking in Memphis’) is a genuinely charming portrayal of Croydon.  But the film troubled me as well.

The setting is problematic. Croydon is not, as you might assume, only the backdrop for the film, a useful metaphorical landscape. It is also the setting; the characters know Purgatory looks like Croydon.  Just being in Croydon is, apparently, part of the horror of dying, as far as Cooney’s own character is concerned. Cooney assured me afterwards that this is not a cheap gag on his team’s part. But I feel like they’ve invited unnecessary trouble here. They’ve made the film more about Croydon than it needs to be (and how fair a setting it therefore is – distracting from what else is going on here) and, in doing so, will be inviting the same question a hundreds time over: “Didn’t you just choose to shoot here because you needed somewhere famously crap?” I’ve already spent a paragraph on it.

It’s a place in-between – a waiting room before the fun really gets started. How many people who grew up here felt that way – and couldn’t wait to leave as a result?

Sadly, some of the stereotyping in the film doesn’t do anything to prove that inference wrong. Our hero is a likably middle-middle class ‘ordinary’ (probably London-based) guy. The angel we meet is a ‘Chelsea-boy’ with a well-manicured designer stubble .The demon is, from what I can tell, a coarse-speaking working-class type from a local estate. A straightforward reversal of these clichés would be equally clichéd, of course, and no one said that Cooney is trying to be Ken Loach; his interests are far more spiritual and comic than social and realist. But it doesn’t bode well, as far as challenging preconceptions go, for the rest of the film. At its worst, the film is an uncritical restatement of London’s existing class structure and its strict notions of desirable and undesirable parts – so recently savaged by Mark Thomas in his interview with The Citizen.

That being said, the choice of Croydon is potentially very clever indeed. The motorcycle montage takes us through lots of different vistas of Croydon’s built environment and shows us the broad canvas Cooney plans to work on in the completed film. Cooney knows the lay of the land from working here and appreciates that its value is probably in its variety and ordinariness. If you need purgatory to be one place – why not choose a place that is gritty, down-at-heel, and yet captures so much of the good and bad of life? Grandiose public buildings, faded commerce, grimy-but-not-spectacularly-grimy flats, interesting people, and so much more. It is not hell after all, but a place in-between – a waiting room before the fun really gets started. How many people who grew up here felt that way – and couldn’t wait to leave as a result? Generally to go off to what they regarded as actual London which would be way cooler and more glamorous of course; a better, more exciting place in some unspecified way. The first 12 minutes are only scratching the surface of what could be a rich vein. There is an opportunity to go deeper in many different ways.

If Cooney can really tap into this creative wellspring to say something interesting about human nature, while entertaining his audience, he may have a very fine completed feature on his hands. In the end, this very potential, and the charming simplicity of “Walking in Croydon”, tips the scale for me. I for one believe Cooney and his team can do it – and wish them the best of the luck with their endeavours.

Impressed by Limbo? You can support the project here

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James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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