REEL Review – Limbo (2020)

Director: Ben Sharrock | 1h 43mins | Drama | Languages: English, Arabic

Omar (Amir El-Masry) is stuck on a remote Scottish island awaiting permission to work in the U.K. Unable to bring himself to play his Oud and missing his war-torn home of Syria, Omar struggles with his decision of leaving.

Usually films about immigrants and refugees have a soft engagement with it’s drama, using a much more informative tone and cutting out the need for unnecessary humour. So, it’s interesting to watch Limbo, a film that’s much more open to a lighter side of storytelling, while also keeping that heartache and courage that comes with such a life changing decision.

It opens on a particularly strange sequence in which two people are enacting an anti-rape seminar, awkwardly dancing as a group of new arrivals watch in awe. It’s part of the films unique style, using the devastating pressure that these people are under, as well as the awful treatment they receive and channeling it into a Wes Anderson-esque tone. It’s a real risk doing something like this – but the offbeat alternative that Sharrock is offering is a fresh take that never lets it’s deadpan comedy take over.

Omar runs into a few of the locals as he cures his boredom, and of course runs into a lot of discrimination and stereotyping. Some teenagers tell him “don’t go blowin’ anything up” before they’ve even asked his name, despite the fact they are recklessly doing donuts in their car without regard for people around them. He then meets a local fisherman who describes the different nationalities in a horribly racist way, in which Omar’s deadpan expression says a lot in the face of such atrocity. That’s why the film’s difficult humour works, Sharrock is showing us from the point of view of Omar, which raises questions (or maybe gives definitive answers) about who the real problem is.

This is where Sharrock delicately deals with the inner conflicts so delicately, loosening the off-beat style ever so slightly and really digging deep into the feelings of his central character – which is performed beautifully by

El-Masry in a very understated performance.

Omar is joined on the island by other refugees, all with big hopes and dreams for when they leave their purgatory and can finally make a life for themselves. One of them dreams of playing for Chelsea FC, despite the fact he’s in his mid-20s and can’t play football very well – and Omar’s closest companion on the island, Farhad, dreams of being an agent “like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire”. Despite the monotone delivery and wildness of the dreams, they are still the only thing to latch onto while living in such an open space of uncertainty. Possibly the only person who isn’t full of hope is Omar, who gradually becomes more pessimistic as his stay increases.

Omar often rings his parents who scold him for not keeping contact with his brother who is fighting in the war, and continuously asks him about his music. But the Oud that Omar carries around with him becomes a symbol of his fear, unable to play because “it doesn’t sound the same”. This is where Sharrock deals with the inner conflicts so delicately, loosening the off-beat style ever so slightly and really digging deep into the feelings of his central character – which is performed beautifully by El-Masry in a very understated performance.

The ending is one that dabbles with both heartbreak and a sense of optimism, but there’s argument that the off-beat style Sharrock is giving us hinders the full impact of it. Having said that, it gives a wonderful alternative to the informative and gritty style so often shown to us in these kinds of films, one that has enough personality to merit it’s existence. Touching, offbeat and incredibly moving – Limbo is a cohesive risk that pays off.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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