Limbo – movie review

Writer-director Ben Sharrock draws on his own experiences of living in Syria and working with refugees in Algeria to shape Limbo. This bittersweet drama explores the loss of identity and self often felt by refugees waiting in limbo for their situation to change.

The film centres around Omar (Egyptian actor Amir el Masry), a Syrian musician and refugee stuck on a bleak, sparsely populated remote Scottish island while he awaits the approval of his application for asylum. He’s housed in temporary accommodation in a small village, which he shares with three other refugees. Every day he and his fellow refugees attend cultural awareness classes in the local community centre where they learn to speak English and also how to behave appropriately in certain situations. The men also eagerly await the arrival of the daily mail in the hope of some good news about their applications.

In Syria, Omar used to be a respected musician who played the oud. He carries it around with him as a sort of touchstone and connection to his past life back in Syria. He can’t play the instrument at the moment because his hand is in a cast, but a deeper psychological reason is behind his inability to play. Some flashback sequences to him playing in front of audiences back home in Damascus in happier times provide a contrast to that sense of isolation and disconnection he now experiences. His only real connection to the outside world is the regular phone calls he makes from the town’s sole phone booth to his parents, who have fled the war zone to find sanctuary in Istanbul.

Sharrock has filmed on location on a windswept remote island in the Hebrides, and this desolate setting perfectly suits the tone of the material. While he imbues the material with an air of hopelessness, there is also a touch of compassion for the plight of these men. But the material is also leavened with touches of droll, deadpan humour in the style of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. There is also plenty of dry visual humour, especially as Omar wanders around the village taking in its desolate surroundings and limited sights.

Cinematographer Nick Cooke (who also shot Sharrock’s debut feature Pikadero in 2015) captures striking long shots of the bleak, windswept and desolate setting. He also conveys that sense of the daily drudgery experienced by the men through a muted colour palette. Cooke uses the boxy ratio, which gives the material something of a claustrophobic feel.

There is no real plot or narrative structure here as Sharrock is more interested in exploring the plight of refugees stuck in limbo in a strange land. The film also illustrates the attitude of the locals towards the presence of these unwanted foreigners in their midst – they are suspicious of the men, but they also hurl racist remarks at them. One of the men with whom Omar shares his sparse accommodation is Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghani refugee, whose obsession with Freddie Mercury and chickens provides some droll moments of humour and much-needed comic relief. Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) just wants to play soccer and has aspirations of being selected by a top team once his application for asylum is approved.

El-Masry’s (The Night Manager) nicely nuanced minimalist performance conveys the confusion and frustration that Omar feels while stuck in limbo in this cold and inhospitable environment. It’s a largely silent performance that manages to convey so much through facial expressions and mannerisms and his gloomy hangdog look. His early optimism slowly erodes as the days pass.

Limbo is an impressive sophomore feature from Sharrock, and it deals with important and topical subject matter – it makes some pointed observations about how countries deal with the refugee crisis – but this is a small film that lacks broader appeal, although it should appeal mainly to art house audiences.

Greg King

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