Limbo (2020), directed and written by Ben Sharrock (Pikadero, The Zealot) is a wry and poignant observation of the refugee experience, set on a fictional remote Scottish island where a group of new arrivals await the results of their asylum claims. It centers on Omar (played by Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian musician who is burdened by his grandfather’s oud, which he has carried all the way from his homeland. While there Omar befriends several other refugees including Farhad (Vikash Bhai).
It’s hard to really pin down what makes this movie truly fantastic, as it is a culmination of many things that come together. I think the biggest thing is likely the amount of restraint and patient on the part of the filmmakers and director Ben Sharrock. It will take a camera almost a full ten seconds to pan from a long, endless road that stretches on and on across beautiful, Scottish landscape, to a character in a phone booth. He isn’t afraid to let his characters sit there in silence for a long time, to watch a character enter the room, or walk across a field, or to have his actors take a long, strained pause before their next line. It feels like many films aim to keep the energy as high and the pacing as fast as possible. While that is in no way a bad thing, it makes a film like this extremely ambitious and hard to come by, but also stand out.
When I speak of this film being slow, I do not want to give it the perception of being boring, but the slow, restrained control over the film allows the atmosphere, landscape, and story to really sink in for you. By its nature, it’s a very introspective, isolated film, with Omar finding himself all alone, say for three other refugees, in this claustrophobic house in the middle of Scotland. You feel the mundanity of these character’s lives and the feeling that this isolation is never going to end. Ben Sharrock as a director isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on a moment, a character, or even a scene, which gives the film an extremely immersive, slice-of-life feel that reallys allows you to absorb the gravity of their different situations. This direction style also gives way to a lot of great moments of comedy, similar to the likes of Napoleon Dynamite, where the camera will linger so long on a moment that the awkwardness of the situation and the absurdity of what the characters are saying actually becomes part of the comedy.
This leads me to discuss the writing, which did a great job of balancing the drama with these little moments of comedy, especially in the first half where the comedy is more prevalent. However, after a certain point a lot of the comedy drops off, but it doesn’t feel too jarring as Sharrock makes it feel very much earned, especially because of how much he elevates the second half with compelling drama between Omar and Farhad. Speaking of, I thought the character designs for these two were brilliant in that Farhad was the complete antithesis of Omar. Farhad did not have to, but chose to leave his country as he had no one and wanted to be himself. Omar on the other hand, did not want to leave his country or his family as his country was the one place where he could be himself and feel accepted. It provides for great character conflict even as the two characters grow closer.
Speaking of characters, as this film is very much a more character rather than plot and action driven story, I thought all the characters were excellent. Omar says very little, especially towards the beginning, and we know very little about him at first. However, the film does a great job of getting us to empathize with the situation he is in by seeing the terrible conditions and treatment he recieves first hand. As the film goes along, we learn more and more about his past, his relationship to his brother, and his relationship to the oud that he always carries around, and what getting asylum means to him. Farhad serves as a great supporting role for this film not only for his more lighthearted, upbeat, comic persona, but also as a way for Omar to come out of his shell a bit and so we as an audience can see another side to the refugee experience. This is also true for both Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) who are the two other refugees Omar befriends who have their own stories and aspirations, which is essentially what this movie is about: stories.
This is all nothing to say of the near flawless cinematography from Nick Cooke (The Mass of Men) both in the story telling and gorgeous Scottish landscape that Cooke lets the audience take in. It is also nothing to say of the brilliant acting from Amir El-Masry (“The Night Manager,” Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) who manages to bring so much vulnerability and history to a character that says so little, and Vikash Bhai (“Hanna,” “The Stranger”) who not only has great chemistry with El-Masry, but also manages to bring so much emotionally vulnerability and weight to some of Farhad’s more absurd actions, not to mention some great moments of lighthearted, comedic timing. Both Ola Orebiyi (Cherry, A Brixton Tale) and Kwabena Ansah (“Enterprice”) also had some very compelling scenes and standout moments. I also cannot go on without mentioning Kenneth Collard as Boris and Sidse Babett Knudsen as Helga who were both so funny and served as great comedic reliefs.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Limbo (2020) is a film that does everything it sets out to do. Though scene by scene it may seem slow, the entire film is carried by the dramatic weight and sense of tension, impatience, and bitterness that perpetuates every single moment. There is always that fear looming over the characters that they will never be granted asylum and that all they have endured in this foreing country will have been for nothing. Great acting, directing, writing, and cinematography all come together to create an extremely unique, but extremely relevant, experience.