FILM REVIEW: Limbo – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Ben Sharrock

The asylum process is long and arduous, sometimes taking years while those expecting to hear what the decision will be are left in limbo. Ben Sharrock’s blackly comic new film unites a group of refugees on a remote Scottish Island, drawing out the visual metaphors of isolation, purgatory and anticipation as their temporary lives stretch on and on.

With his parents in Turkey and his brother still fighting, Syrian refugee and musician Omar is left in the UK asylum system as he waits for news on whether his application has been accepted. Living with men from Afghanistan, Sudan, Ghana and other nations, they attend cultural awareness, language and job seeker sessions, kill time watching TV shows and interact with the suspicious locals dreaming of what they left behind.

The comic-serious tone of Sharrock’s film is one of Limbo’s most enjoyable aspects, referencing the slightly heightened oddity of Yorgos Lanthimos and even Father Ted with its presentation of the odd characters, Scottish and others living in close confines on the island. A vicious argument between two of Omar’s housemates clearly referencing the ‘we were on a break’ argument between Ross and Rachel in Friends is a throwaway moment but exactly captures the sardonic depths of Sharrock’s screenplay.

Many of the scenarios are funny but with a deadpan delivery that enhances the humour they still make the underlying tragedy of the loneliness and misery engendered by their unwelcoming treatment all the clearer. Humanity is offered through Omar’s perspective that sees the strangeness of the land around him and its people, sometimes amused by the bizarreness he observes but the audience also sees his loneliness dwarfed against the windswept landscape.

The island looks beautiful, huge grassy planes, seascapes and views that are two-thirds sky and in Nick Cooke’s cinematography it looks forbidding, occasionally obliterated and frequently weather-beaten. The way Sharrock introduces humorous scenarios into these spaces is hugely enjoyable as men cycle awkwardly across it, discuss a love of chickens or sing 60s music, as well as drawing contrasts with the distressed chintz of the grotty and basic home the men share.

Amir El-Masry plays it dead straight as Omar, balancing the demands of his family pressuring him for additional support and vocalising their disappointment, while he is daily eroded by being unable to work or progress. El-Masry is the centre of the film as Omar’s frustration builds, trudging around the island while developing subdued yet gently affectionate and sustaining relationships with the other men in the house.

Among the supporting cast Vikash Bhai’s chicken-loving Afghan Farhad is particularly enjoyable, giving an off-the-wall quality that enhances Sharrock’s characterisation, but this is tempered with sadness having waited 32-months on the island. More overt humour is added by Sidse Babett Knudsen as cultural awareness teacher Helga and her partner Kenneth Collard as Boris.

A brief dream sequence adds a few unnecessary extra minutes that El-Masry’s performance doesn’t need but Limbo is an empathetic film that looks at the effects of war and persecution without feeling polemical. Sharrock’s approach enhances the humanity of the stories he is telling about the difficult journeys that men have taken and how the dreams of a better life hit the cold reality of the UK.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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Comic-serious tone

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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