Written & Directed by Ben Sharrock
Cinema is always a tension between aesthetics and narrative. Sometimes the two gel together perfectly so that tension is barely felt. Other times you find movies veering wildly in one direction over the other. I personally will always enjoy a picture where the narrative is most in focus, but having well-crafted visual sensibilities at work can’t hurt. Limbo has a striking visual look, nothing too ornate, but immaculate focused cinematography. Comparisons to Wes Anderson or Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) will be immediate. However, the picture is not merely a copy of someone else’s work. Limbo presents a very human story in an incredibly isolated place. The way images are framed intentionally keeps us at arm’s length, just as the characters in its story would to others. But as the film goes on, we are drawn in closer.
Set on a fictional Scottish island, Limbo is the story of a group of refugees from across Africa and Asia waiting for word of whether their asylum claims will be honored or if they will be sent back home to their respective homelands. The movie’s main character is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian man whose parents gave him money to flee their war-torn country. He’s placed in the same house as Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan, and Wasef & Abedi (Ola Orebiyi & Kwabena Anash, respectively), both Rwandan refugees. They attend daily lessons on cultural integration and language at a community center and spend the rest of their days in utter boredom. Omar has brought an oud with him, a Syrian stringed instrument that serves as a reminder of his family but feels hesitant to play it for anyone.
The first thing that writer-director Ben Sharrock does wonderfully is use his setting to tie into his themes. There are many wide shots with characters appearing minuscule against the empty open landscape, whether it’s against the sands of the coast or a payphone booth along a lonely gravel road. The use of the setting helps underscore how alone Omar feels in this place. It’s cold and desolate, uninviting. The Scottish people of the community aren’t one-dimensional villains against refugees; they’re represented with a mix of comically hostile, curious, and completely neutral. I particularly enjoyed the Sikh cashier working at the island’s single supermarket who would talk to Omar through the P.A. system despite the dimensions of the store being so small.
The picture’s pacing is done remarkably well, with a comedic focus in the first act. As our characters are introduced, the movie is light, finding moments of great humor in the mundane. As Omar’s story is slowly unraveled, the film becomes more serious, leaning into the human interest angle of its plot. There’s a certain elegance in how Sharrock handles a character like Farhad, at first presented as a comic oddball only to be given some wonderfully human moments, showing multiple dimensions to a character who might otherwise be a punchline. We learn why Farhad fled from Afghanistan and his obsession with Freddie Mercury makes more sense by the time we get there. It moves from a funny affectation to beautiful character work that deepens the performance.
I think that pacing does have some places where it doesn’t work. The movie might move a little too slow through its second act, holding back big emotional moments for later. If some of the side characters had been given more room to develop during this time, I think it might have helped. The relationship between Wasef & Abedi, in particular, was one that I loved and wanted more from. They refer to each other as brothers, but we learn that’s more in a spiritual sense, both coming from the same country. One holds very pie in the sky aspirations about what he can become in this new land (he wants to be a professional footballer), while the other is much more practical, understanding that working as a cleaning person will be about as high as he’s likely to achieve. Neither is presented as wrong; instead, there’s a bittersweet tension between the two. We know they aren’t likely to be more than cleaners in a place like this, but we want to believe in the dream they could achieve more.
There are little things I’d change about the picture. When Omar finally plays the oud at a community concert, we hear some of it only to have the film’s score take over. I would have just let that performance play out against the quiet of the audience. The tonal shifts are not the smoothest though I really loved that the picture wasn’t afraid to go to some dark places, attempting to take on the full scope of the refugee experience. This is only Sharrock’s second feature, and I fully expect we will see more from him in the future. Limbo has that lovely combination of a film with significant emotional and thematic depth while being presented in a manner that can bring in a wider audience who might not go for your typical arthouse fare. I highly recommend checking out Limbo if you have the chance. It’s a movie that’s sadly slipped under the radar due to the pandemic but is a perfect picture to finish off the year.