Written and Directed by Ben Sharrock.
Starring Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kais Nashif, Kenneth Collard, Sanjeev Kohli, Cameron Fulton, Lewis Gribben, Grace Chilton, and Raymond Mearns.
Omar is a promising young musician. Separated from his Syrian family, he is stuck on a remote Scottish island awaiting the fate of his asylum request.
While there are quite a few impressionable moments speaking to the migrant lifestyle (and from multiple perspectives given that writer and director Ben Sharrock has dedicated a portion of his life ingratiating himself with actual refugees) in Limbo, the one dialogue exchange that keeps coming back to mind involves a discussion on chickens. Specifically, it’s the fact that while the chickens look nearly identical, they are in fact different breeds, to which a character applies that misconception to race relations in Scotland (although the point still speaks to all privileged people) and the plights of refugees of various ethnicities and backgrounds; they and all their struggles are the same to them.
As for Omar (Amir El-Masry delivering a strong performance weighing and balancing the idiosyncratic with the profound), the term “limbo” doesn’t just speak to that space between awaiting asylum and freedom itself. Lugging around his grandfather’s oud (basically a Middle Eastern guitar) everywhere he goes around this empty and drab isle, Omar’s limbo also comes from ambition, guilt, and provision.
Due to fleeing war-torn Syria, Omar is estranged from his immediate family but does occasionally get to speak to his parents from an isolated phone booth on the side of the road (just one of the many surreal quirks on display here that are amplified thanks to staggering cinematography from Nick Cooke, with views that adapt to and serve the shifting aspect ratio) having conversations about safety, money, and keeping the family together. Omar’s brother stayed behind to join resistance fighters whereas Omar was encouraged to flee and make something of his inherent musical talent, passing along some money to his parents in the process. The problem is that it’s hard to not see defeat as far as the expensive scenery stretches.
Limbo refuses to wallow in that misery, though. It’s a film where following being told “not to blow some shit up or rape anyone” by racist locals, minutes later everyone is doing donuts together in a car alongside the beach. If anything, it’s all expressed as a black comedy with some hope for connection and unity. Omar and his refugee peers also attend training sessions on assimilating into the culture, taught with condescension so thick it’s hard not to find the humor. However, in one of those same sequences, Limbo can deftly transition tones to something more thoughtful as one student insults another for having the audacity and drive to pursue becoming a soccer player.
Of all these supporting players, the most prevalent is Farhad (Vikash Bhai turning in an appropriately eccentric performance), an inexplicably cheerful Afghani man despite the circumstances that’s more than willing to enjoy English entertainment such as Friends and function seemingly without bother. It’s not necessarily a fulfilling life but he seems to have found a level of content. He’s also endearingly a super fan of Freddie Mercury and encouraging Omar’s potential as a musician. Not only are they night and day characters in terms of personality that allow the film’s multiple tones to better coexist, but they provide the opportunity for Ben Sharrock to explore different refugee experiences without invalidating either perspective.
Still, Limbo is also about a lost man (internally and externally) reckoning with choices of both his own doing and his family. Some of the phone calls are heated and inflict hurt unto Omar, but it’s all a part of working out his next set of choices; the future. There are certain jokes that are simply too weird to work here and not all of it comes together powerfully, but the many limbos Omar exists in are all relatively fascinating. It’s also exquisitely shot and sure to make unfamiliar viewers a fan of the oud.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com