Limbo review: A delightful, bittersweet drama
Matthew Turner | On 23, Sep 2021
Director: Ben Sharrock
Cast: Amir El-Masry, Sidse Babett-Knudsen, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard
Watch Limbo online in the UK: MUBI UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV
The island of Uist in the Outer Hebrides provides the main location for this bittersweet comedy-drama, the second feature from Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock, following his award-winning 2016 debut Pikadero. It centres on Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young musician who has fled the conflict in his home country and is awaiting a decision about his future from the British government.
While he waits in policy-dictated limbo, Omar is housed on a remote Scottish island, alongside a group of similar refugees all in the same situation. Forbidden to work and subsisting on a meagre living allowance, they attend “cultural awareness” lessons – hosted by well-meaning duo Helga (Sidse Babett-Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard) – and occasionally interact with the local islanders.
Sharrock gives the film a largely episodic structure, during which we gradually learn more about Omar’s situation and the reasons behind his reluctance to play the oud (a guitar-like instrument) he still carries everywhere. Occasionally he calls his parents, who are still in Turkey, from a phone box and the resulting mixture of homesickness, guilt and suppressed trauma is palpable and heartbreaking.
In the lead role, Amir El-Masry proves a gift of a performer – he has a soulful, lost quality and his beautifully deadpan face is pure Buster Keaton. He’s ably supported by a terrific comic turn from Vikash Bhai as Omar’s relentlessly optimistic Afghan housemate Farhad, a Freddie Mercury obsessive who steals a chicken from a nearby farm and names it Freddie Jr – a sequence that carries echoes of Withnail & I.
The film is peppered with great little scenes, moments and running jokes, such as the way Omar’s housemates gradually become obsessed with a Friends DVD box set, leading to the expected arguments about whether or not Ross and Rachel were on a break, a full quarter of a century after the rest of the world did the same thing. Sidse Babett-Knudsen (the film’s only well known actor) is very, very funny as Helga; the film is worth seeing just for her note-perfect comic performance – the opening sequence in particular, where she gives the students a lesson on how to approach a lady at a disco, is comedy gold.
On top of that, the film looks stunning throughout, thanks to cinematographer Nick Cooke’s winning way with a striking landscape, coupled with Sharrock’s decision to frame the film in a box-like 4:3 ratio that suggests restriction and enclosure with the whole wide(screen) world just tantalisingly out of reach.
Finally, Sharrock’s script, drawn from his own experiences of living in Syria and filming in Algerian refugee camps, has an emotional authenticity to it, supplying an ever-present underlying note of real-life tragedy to the occasionally absurd comedy on the surface. That bittersweet blend of sadness and humour, filtered through the film’s deadpan delivery, offers a refreshing and original perspective on the refugee experience, which is itself becoming a mainstay of European cinema.
Limbo is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.
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This review was originally published during the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival.