wed 28/02/2024

Limbo review - quiet but voluble | reviews, news & interviews

Limbo review - quiet but voluble

Limbo review - quiet but voluble

Story of a Syrian in Scotland packs a gentle wallop

Way station: Amir El-Masry in 'Limbo'

Displacement looms large over every quietly impressive frame of Limbo, writer-director Ben Sharrock's magnetic film about a young Syrian man called Omar (Amir El-Masry) who finds himself biding his time in the remotest reaches of Scotland on the way to some unknown new life. 

Adrift from his family, who have made their way to Turkey, and thrown into the company of a motley array of fellow asylum-seekers, Omar spends his days thinking back on the glorious music he once made on his beloved oud and dealing with locals who are happy enough to provide a lift. If only they didn't pepper their apparent kindness with numerous jabs at what they perceive to be Omar's terrorist tendencies.Amir El-Masry in 'Limbo'Indrawn but infinitely observant, Omar looks out at the world with a mixture of wonder but weariness, too: yes, he's made it out of a country in ruin only to find himself in some sort of eternal-seeming way station during which he is forbidden to work, so can't do much but soak in the vast cloudscapes of Nick Cooke's atmospheric camerawork. Twice BAFTA-nominated this past spring, Limbo breaks with convention in its mood, which preferences gathering heartache and deadpan humour over the turbulent narrative one might expect of how these refugees ever arrived on British shores at all.

Sharrock's script gets off to a neat start, showing the assemblage of arrivals to Britain who look on bemused at the latest in a sequence of cultural awareness classes presided over by Boris (Kenneth Collard) and Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who constitute the most whacked-out double-act in a long while. (We're told the pair do a mean Sonny and Cher, even as they instruct their onlookers in correct nightclub etiquette.)

Left to chat among themselves, the men range from a Freddie Mercury-loving Afghani, Farhad (Vikash Bhai), to two Nigerian brothers, Abedi and Wasef, who get into an argument about the difference in meaning between "break" and "break up". (Kwabena Ansah and Ola Orebiyi are both terrific in those roles.) Omar pays keen attention throughout, in-between calls back home to his mum who is busy urging a rapprochement with his brother, Nabil, and the nursing of a prolonged wrist injury which is keeping Omar from the music-making that was his life. Throughout it all, the British Egyptian El-Masry (pictured above centre) is a marvel, never once overplaying his hand or italicising the role for effect. 

At times, the film is a bit too contemplative: style, one feels during the first hour especially, risks taking precedence over substance. But the measured nature of Sharrock's story-telling pays off as it proceeds toward an ending that hints at a possible breakthrough of sorts or at least to the course of action famously defined by that master of waiting, Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on, I'll go on," the Irishman famously wrote, as if to prescribe for Omar the only way forward and out into the light.


Such a wonderful film and such an improvement on his previous film Picadero where style definitely took precedence and the central characters were passive beyond belief. It is worth mentioning that the Afghani Farhad is not just an admirer of Fredde Mercury but cannot conceive of returning to his own country as he is gay. I'm glad you cite Beckett as there are many shots of the one single track road on the island stretching out to the horizon, a familiar Beckettian image to accompany his famous quote " I can't go on, I'll go on" which perfectly describes Omar's predicament .

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