Limbo: A wry, heartfelt portrayal of asylum seekers stuck on a remote Scottish island

Limbo: A wry, heartfelt portrayal of asylum seekers stuck on a remote Scottish island
Film review: The sophomore feature by Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock lives up its title, portraying the purgatorial existence of asylum seekers living on a remote Scottish island, writes Hanna Flint.
4 min read
26 February, 2021
British-Egyptian actor Amir El Masry (L) takes the lead as Omar, a Syrian musician
The plight of refugees is certainly not something to laugh at but the humorous approach to the subject offered in Limbo, the sophomore feature from Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock, is rather refreshing.

Of course, that's not to say the more serious tones adopted in recent critically-acclaimed dramas and documentaries Capernaum, For Sama and Midnight Traveler haven't been essential in transmitting the heartbreaking reality of those in crisis but, as with Home, the comedy series about a Syrian refugee living with a family in Dorking, UK, Limbo's satirical lens makes its asylum-seeking protagonist that much more relatable to viewers.

British-Egyptian actor Amir El Masry takes the lead as Omar, a Syrian musician awaiting the result of his refugee claim on a fictional Scottish island that is remote with a capital R.

Breathtaking shots of hilly vistas and nature untouched emphasise how isolated an existence he is living; a purgatorial state that lives up to its title with the help of dated costumes made up of charity stop donations, dilapidated accommodation with peeling wallpaper and a slew of 20th century pop culture references.

Omar is one of the many single men from across Africa and the Middle East who have been waiting on the island for months, in some cases years, for government approval to begin their life again in the wider UK.

As they wait they are forced to amuse themselves with local rituals, contend with neighbourly prejudices and suffer patronising attitudes from officials.

The opening scene sees this group of bored arrivals watch two Scottish administrators, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) and Kenneth Collard (Cuckoo), conduct a role-playing session on consent to the tune of Hot Chocolate's It Started With A Kiss.

It's an absurd and hilarious sequence that speaks volumes of the ridiculous way Western societies so often infantilise those they perceive as the "other."

Later, Omar is confronted by some Scottish youths who after delivering a deluge of casual racism offer him a lift in their car because it's about to rain.

The Syrian himself is guilty of offence towards a Sikh shopkeeper while trying to connect over the spice sumac a few scenes after.

It's the awkwardness that comes from these cross-cultural assumptions and differences that provide much of the film's deadpan hilarity, a wryness akin to The Lobster or Napolean Dynamite, and makes Omar's story that much more accessible.

Not everything is played for laughs though; as Omar uncomfortably acclimatises to the bleak surroundings and his phone calls home to his mother become increasingly fraught, the melancholic undercurrent of his journey bubbles to the surface.

He's torn by the decision to leave family behind, including a brother determined to face Assad's regime without him. Omar cannot bring himself to pluck one note on his oud since landing on Scottish soil and the longer he waits to learn his asylum status the more blurred the lines become between reality and his conflicted psyche.

This tonal shift is helped by the aspect ratio switches of cinematographer Nick Cooke as well as the production design of Omar's shrinking bedroom, in particular, to show how increasingly isolated his world is becoming.

El Masry barely has to speak a word in order to convey Omar's guilt and grief; every look is etched with the sadness of that choice which Sharrock so often fills the frame with.

It's a remarkably gentle performance, one steeped in a vulnerability slowly building towards to a cathartic release in the third act.

But Omar's isn't the only refugee story being told; Vikash Bhai's Farhad, a moustachioed, Freddie Mercury-obsessive from Afghanistan, brings just as much heartfelt truth and humanity to proceedings in a cast also made up of non-actors and refugees to really encapsulate the authenticity of these bittersweet circumstances.

For these men might have escaped their unsafe homelands but the cost is often family, identity and autonomy.

If the film lacks anything it is a female perspective but that doesn't take away from the care and consideration that Sharrock has built into the fabric of this film.

The experiences and feelings he presents are those borrowed from the various Syrians and refugees he's come to know over the years since studying and working in the Middle East.

But he's avoided the pitfalls of other white filmmakers by avoiding any dehumanising cliches or Western saviours to come to Omar's rescue. Instead, Sharrock has created a delicate world, one that is both grounded and off-kilter, to deliver an asylum story filled with humour and understanding that always keeps the refugees at its centre.

Limbo is playing as part of Glasgow International Film Festival and will be released in the UK from July 30.

Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets. 

Follow her on Twitter: @HannaFlint