Limbo enticed me because it focuses on a group of refugee men awaiting asylum in the United Kingdom. Part of what enticed me was the trailer, which featured both the struggle the men encountered in their wait but also subtle comedic scenes. While the film does not quite live up to its billing as a comedy-drama, as it focuses far more on the drama, it has a talented cast, wry humor, and moments of grace that shine a light on the refugee experience with an ending that leaves you filled with hope.
Limbo, written and directed by Ben Sharrock, centers on four asylum seekers who are staying on a remote Northern island in Scotland and taking cultural awareness classes while awaiting the processing of their refugee claims. Among them is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian musician burdened by his grandfather’s oud, which he has carried all the way from his homeland. Separated from his family, his brother Nabil (Kais Nashef) left fighting in Syria and unable to play, Omar struggles with making his peace with his life as a refugee. Befriended by Farhad (Vikash Bhai) who models himself on Freddy Mercury, the pair take classes with Wasef (Ola Orebiya) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah). We soon learn that the four are unable to work while awaiting asylum so their days are filled with bizarre lessons and rewatching American sitcoms. The question becomes will the four, especially Omar make peace with their lives, and will they ever receive acceptance of asylum?
In Limbo, two of the biggest elements that are critical to how successful the film are the plot and how the story builds from the initial scenes. When we first are introduced to the four men, they are in a class being taught how to approach a woman without offending her. Taught by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), the class initiates the wry, off-kilter, fish out of water humor that allows the audience to simultaneously understand how the men feel and laugh out loud. What makes it work is that everyone is serious in the presentation, but the juxtaposition of the four’s lack of understanding with the almost seventies-style teachings makes the sardonic jokes work. It also provides the counterpoint to the bleakness and limbo that the rest of the film presents which moves slowly and could drag the film down. However, these subtle hints of comedy allow the plot to shine yet still illustrate the helpless state that the men exist in. And yet, the ending gives a beautiful graceful moment of hope as a counterpoint to the darkness of the men’s experience.
The writing also allows the location itself to convey some of the bleak quality that the writing is illustrating. Set on a remote island in Scotland, the landscape is cold, windblown, and rugged with little amenities. The one store the men use has very few selections to the point where the mustard is labeled by type of country, for example, English mustard, and Omar is unable to find an ingredient to make a dish for a recipe his mother sent him. There is very little for anyone to do except watch old sitcoms and wait for the mail. Farhad tries to encourage Omar to play his Oud and steals a local chicken but otherwise, there is nothing as the men aren’t able to work. I appreciated the careful consideration of the authenticity of the refugee experience.
Part of the experience is how well each actor portrays the weight of his character. Amir El-Masry as Omar truly gives an emotional and wrenching experience, as he deftly illustrates how the character struggles with the loss of his family, the burden of trying to help them, whether he will ever play again or if he has lost himself entirely. As the central figure in the story, he holds together the story with amazing skill. Vikash Bhai as Farhad has a brilliant dynamic with El-Masry, excellent in portraying their friendship and his character’s concern for Omar, his desire to help him with his music. Ola Orebiya and Kwabena Ansah as Wasef and Abedi make us care about them as they portray both the passion and the anger both feel at the wait and delays in their immigration status. They expertly portray the turmoil of their experience. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard do just a subtle performance with the comedic elements.
If there is any miss, it is in the billing of the film. It misses by focusing on the comedy, rather than the drama. While there is humor, it is far more subtle and wry, woven within the context of the drama. It is far from justice to bill it as a comedy when it is the drama that shines. It is also a much different humor than most Americans are used to, very dry and contextual. If you know British comedy or have been to England or Scotland, you will be able to appreciate it more. I grew up on British comedy. The other aspect that might throw audiences is that the pace of the film is slow to demonstrate the waiting that the men endure. It is a deliberate choice and aids in providing the perfect atmosphere of the refugee environment.
If you can be patient and understand that the atmosphere provides the authentic refugee experience, this is a film that has such beautiful moments of grace and a hopeful ending, with dry off-kilter humor, that it was absolutely brilliant to watch. The acting is emotional and gripping, with a rich dynamic between all four men. This film is all about the subtleties. If you pay attention, you will find this an absorbing and emotional movie.
Rating: 4 out of 5 chickens.
Limbo opens exclusively in theaters on Friday, April 30, 2021.