CAST: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kwabena Ansah, Grace Chilton, Kenneth Collard, Cameron Fulton, Silvie Furneaux, Jorge Gidi, Lewis Gribben, Ellie Haddington, Sanjeev Kohli, Raymond Mearns, Kais Nashif, Ola Orebiyi
RUNNING TIME: 103 mins
BASICALLY…: A Syrian migrant (El-Masry) passes the time on a remote Scottish island during a long wait for his asylum application to be accepted…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review of Limbo was conducted as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021.
Limbo, the second feature from writer-director Ben Sharrock, is quite brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, in fact. It’s a film that you just don’t expect to really, truly love until you actually start watching it, and when it’s over you’re left in an utter state of shock by how intelligent, funny, devastating and (cautiously) optimistic it is.
That is, admittedly, a lot riding on a film being sold as a deadpan dark comedy about a group of asylum seekers. However, you may rest assured that any pre-conceived worries about how such a sensitive topic may be handled are very quickly dashed, and soon you’ll be fully absorbed into the quiet, subtle human drama, as well as the deliciously dry sense of humour it runs with, that this stirring and atmospheric film has to offer.
The film is primarily set on a small, scarcely populated Scottish island, where a number of refugees from multiple parts of the world have been temporarily placed until the Home Office grants them asylum. Unfortunately, for a lot of them, that fateful day when the postman arrives with that life-changing letter seems to be taking an eternity, leaving a lot of them spending their time waiting around for something to happen, trapped in this barren wasteland of hills and dolphin tour boats. Our main focus is on Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), who’s left his family in Istanbul, Turkey (who have themselves escaped from the warzones in Syria, except for his older brother who’s elected to stay and fight Assad) to opt for UK residency instead; he shares a small, empty house with other migrants, including Freddie Mercury-idolising Afghan Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two quarrelling Nigerian siblings, who all try and pass the time on the island, which interacting with some of the ignorant locals, watching episodes of Friends on DVD, and in Omar’s case finding the courage to pick up and play his oud for the first time since leaving his native country.
On the outside, this perhaps seems like a set-up for a particularly ill-judged sitcom, but while Sharrock’s film is often very funny with its extremely dry and direct sense of humour – small things from a jaw-dropped facial expression to heated arguments about Ross and Rachel’s on/off-again relationship on Friends raise plentiful laughs, even with their deadpan deliveries – the film has a much darker, sometimes excruciating tone that’s as serious as they come. The great dramatic crux of Limbo comes from the depression and anxiety that many of these characters face because of their ongoing situation; they have all come to the UK with hopes and dreams, but have essentially been abandoned by the state to wallow on this lifeless island for months, possibly even years, before confirmation of their status comes through the post. That would be enough to leave anyone with a depleted sense of hope and optimism, and while some, like the cheery Farhad, desperately try to find some bright spots in their unfamiliar new environment, the majority – including our lead Omar – are easily succumbing to the long wait which is leaving them much more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable.
In both his script and direction, Sharrock brilliantly conveys this feeling of isolation through simplistic but deeply-layered dialogue (a mere conversation about chickens quickly turns into a smart logical explanation for xenophobia towards migrants) and eerily atmospheric shots of the vast scenery captured by sharp-eyed cinematographer Nick Cooke. Sharrock’s cast, led by a multi-layered and emotional turn by Amir El-Masry, also perfectly nails the confusion and anger that comes hand-in-hand with the borderline-sadistic waiting time these migrants are left to twiddle their thumbs during, leading to a series of heart-breaking moments of acting that honestly left me on the verge of tears. The combination of the excellent writing and quietly powerful performances are what leave you really interested and strangely charmed by these characters, because they have unique enough personalities and backstories to sustain long periods alone with them, and when they are upset or emotional about something, you feel their pain and anguish in something as small as a mere facial tic.
There is also, even amidst the darkness that this movie bathes itself in, a hint of light which gives the story, its characters and even the audience that much-needed sense of hope that it was sorely missing. By the end, you really do feel uplifted by the mere actions that certain characters make to complete their overall arc, which leaves things on a satisfactory and pleasingly ambiguous ending, as if to say “sure, things might not seem so great now, but there’s plenty of reasons to make the most of it and seize every available opportunity, even in the grisliest of places.” It is a beautiful coda to a film that is through and through gorgeous; everything from its dry sense of humour to its smart commentary on social issues to a cast of rich, engaging characters framed by some effective boxed-in cinematography, just feels right, with not a single toe out of line.
Limbo really is such a special treat of a movie, and easily one of the best I’ve seen so far this year, so I am truly hoping if/when it finally comes to cinemas and streaming (more details about where and when below) it gains a reasonable audience which can discover a truly wonderful piece of atmospheric and human cinema, like I was so fortunate to do.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Limbo is an absolutely astonishing film by writer-director Ben Sharrock, filled with intelligent, dryly funny and thought-provoking commentary about the asylum process, and a richly detailed set of characters set to some gorgeously atmospheric cinematography, all in service of a beautifully human story about finding the hope and optimism in the lowliest of places and situations. It is easily one of the best films so far this year.