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New to MUBI - LIMBO

limbo review
A Syrian refugee struggles with the mundanity of his life in a centre on a remote Scottish island.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ben Sharrock

Starring: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kwabena Ansah, Ola Orebiyi, Kenneth Collard

limbo poster



Movies concerned with the plight of refugees are rarely a barrel of laughs. Somebody forgot to tell this to writer/director Ben Sharrock, who takes a cue from Preston Sturges and uses comedy to highlight what was Europe's biggest crisis before a certain virus arrived on our shores.

limbo review

Limbo focusses on the mundane existence of a quartet of asylum seekers left to stew on a wind-battered Scottish island while they wait for their requests to stay in the UK to be rubber-stamped or rejected. Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) are Nigerian brothers who bicker over everything from their prospects in Britain to plotlines from Friends. The happy-go-lucky, Freddie Mercury obsessed Farhad (Vikash Bhai) has left Afghanistan and is naively optimistic about what a life in the UK may bring him. Our main focus is on Omar (Amir El-Masry), a musician who fled Syria but decided to travel on to the UK rather than settle with his parents in Istanbul.


Sharrock establishes this world and its inhabitants – both the refugee newcomers and the island's natives – through a series of vignettes, which often border on absurdist comedy. The refugees are treated in patronising fashion by a pair of well-meaning but tone-deaf instructors (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard) who lecture them in subjects as varied as how to apply for job vacancies and how to interact with British women in nightclubs. When they're not being subjected to such demeaning lessons, the lads aimlessly wander the hills and shores of the island like migrant cousins of the elderly heroes of Last of the Summer Wine. Occasionally they interact with the locals, who like so many rural folk, are a contradictory mix of xenophobia and simple human decency (after subjecting Omar to Islamophobic invective, a pair of teenage boy-racers offer him a lift, concerned he might catch a cold in the rain).

limbo review

As the narrative progresses, it narrows its focus on Omar, who is suffering an existential crisis. His weekly phone calls to his parents leave him wracked with guilt over not staying in Syria to fight alongside his brother (which party his brother is fighting for in that complicated conflict is left ambiguous), and for not keeping in practice with his Oud, having lugged the instrument across the Middle East and Europe. For Omar, the Oud represents the life he has left behind, and it hurts him too much to play it. His hand is in a plaster but you get the sense that's a convenient excuse for keeping the instrument locked away. When he watches YouTube videos of his performances before the war, Omar is moved to tears, presuming he'll never find himself in such a position again. But perhaps rivaled only by food, music is what keeps traditions alive among immigrants, so we're rooting for Omar to summon up the courage to play once more.


Initially it might seem Sharrock is presenting a cynical take on this scenario, as we're asked to laugh at practically every character we meet save for the educated, once middle-class Omar. There is something a little elitist about how Sharrock views the people who populate his film, and I was slightly irked at how he positions us to laugh at them only to turn on a sixpence halfway through and make us feel bad for doing so. It's something of a cheap trick, and in his film's second half, Sharrock largely trades comedy for pathos rather than organically blending the two.

limbo review

But for all its snark, Limbo is ultimately a hopeful film that refreshingly suggests that communities can live together in harmony once they get over any fears stoked by external forces. The only major difference between the locals of the island and the refugees is that the former don’t realise they're in limbo, and have made peace with their position. As working class Brits they're all too aware that the propaganda the instructors feed the refugees about how "if you work hard enough you can become anything you want" is a falsehood, and if Omar and his mates are to make a home in their new land, it's a lesson they'll need to learn themselves.

Limbo
 is on MUBI UK now.



2021 movie reviews