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Film review: Limbo

06 August 2021

Susan Gray reviews a film about asylum


A still from Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo, on current release

A still from Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo, on current release

THE film Limbo is a beautifully constructed and observed story of refugees, marooned by a creaking asylum system on a remote Scottish island. In his second feature, the Scottish director Ben Sharrock makes a small budget stretch a long way with lingering shots of country roads and big sky seascapes, and a cast mixing professional actors with asylum-seekers. There’s a lyrical leanness to the piece: no shot, line, or joke is wasted.

As the film opens, Sidse Babett Knudsen’s English teacher, Helga, shimmies to Hot Chocolate’s “It Started With A Kiss” in front of a blackboard. As the camera pans out, she is joined by Kenneth Collard as Boris, whose increasing handsiness earns him a slap. “What did Boris do wrong?” By way of answer, the rows of men in the makeshift classroom pull a tableau of blank faces. The lesson on sexual consent is a tone-deaf attempt to prepare the refugees for their new lives. And the film is a testament to how dehumanising it becomes when the dial is permanently stuck at basic, for responding to the needs of others.

Against this indifferent background, Omar, played with strength and stillness by Amir El-Masry, is torn between his family’s penniless plight in Istanbul, stories of his brother Nabil’s freedom-fighting in Syria, and the shared struggles of his fellow refugees to make a life in a place that even locals say nobody cares about. Coming from a family of gifted musicians, Omar carries his oud with him from beach to medical centre to phone box, but it remains in its case unplayed. Only mobile-phone footage shows what was once possible.

A fellow refugee, Fahrad, a genial Vikash Bhai, wants Omar to play his oud again, and stop using the instrument case as a “coffin for your soul”. Fahrad is an enthusiast, longing to wear a suit, work in an office, and answer the phone saying “How may I help you?” as he has seen on American television shows. Sharrock makes clever use of globally recognised cultural symbols, from Friends to Chelsea strips and Instagram accounts devoted to kittens.

But it is real-life tragedy and a broader exploration of brotherhood which unfreezes Omar’s spirit rather than feel-good global entertainment. As he says the Islamic prayers for the dead against a biting wind, and makes peace with Nabil in an other-worldly encounter, he returns to life.

Filmed in the Outer Hebrides, Limbo is the cinematic heir of Whisky Galore and Local Hero, and has a 21st-century supply of rough-diamond locals for comic effect. But the film’s beautiful texture, revealing the web, both psychological and physical, in which its refugee subjects are suspended, shows very serious intent.

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