Film Review: Limbo, starring Amir El-Masry and Vikash Bhai

Waiting for something to happen.

This film opens with two middle aged Scottish TEFL teachers doing a sexy dance to teach “consent 101” to a bunch of bemused asylum seekers.

The scene is beautifully and starkly framed; these woolly liberals grabbing butt, not those seeking a better life, are the butt of the joke. But as the camera cut from the awkward dance to the barely contained horror of those watching on, I wondered what sort of film this was planning to be. For a few terrible minutes, I thought it might be The Office: Refugee Island, with excruciating moments of broad comedy offsetting a tale of warmth, cultural understanding in difficult circumstances, and mutual awkwardness.

Instead, Limbo turned out to be much more interesting than that. A devastatingly deadpan tale of isolation, hope, despair, state cruelty, futility, and humanity, it would be the best film I’d seen all year even if it wasn’t the only film I’d seen all year. And anyway: there’s also a chicken called Freddie Jr. What more do you want?

Our protagonist, Omar, is from Syria. He has ended up off the coast of Scotland – our setting is a nameless, bleak amalgam of several real places, like a less silly Craggy Island – with a dozen other refugees. He shares a house with three other men, all with their own terrible stories and secrets, and carries his instrument – an oud – with him wherever he goes: both physical and metaphorical baggage he can’t let go of.

Unable to work, Omar and the other men spend their time hanging around the exceptionally bleak locales available to them: the park, the jetty, the village hall. The shop which only sells two spices – ketchup and mustard. And the wind is everywhere.

With mobile reception all but non-existent, Omar’s single link with his previous life is the single phone box, which is a portal to his parents, who are struggling and are treated “less than dogs” in Istanbul, and, though them if not directly, his brother, still fighting the good fight, in Syria. The plan is for him to secure leave to remain and for his parents to eventually follow; his estranged sibling offers an alternative and even more dangerous path.

Omar, as played by Amir El-Masry, is a ball of loss and despair. He bounces off everything: the curiosity and friendly racism of the local youths, the travails of his fellow asylum seekers, and even the possibility of change. He is vanishing into this savage landscape, and it’s not certain that his purgatory will or can ever achieve liminality.

But there are others trapped on the island. Most memorably there is Vikash Bhai’s Farhad, from Afghanistan, with a Freddie Mercury obsession and, seemingly, much more able to make the transition. His stream of prizes from the donation centre, from Friends DVDs to second hand car dealer suit, and his love for the aforementioned chicken, keep the film from sinking into the frozen ground despite the camera’s unflinching eye for both the landscape and the characters’ circumstances.

And the locals are trapped too, though they seem unaware of it. I have mentioned Craggy Island, and there are people here who wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Father Ted: the old lady in a shopmobility scooter, her engine whining with unsaid hatreds, and the young woman with a dolphin mask mistaking refugees for potential tourists. 

And most memorably of all, the postie, blasting out opera from his red van, as he gets back in to drive the five or ten metres between each house, while Omar and his friends watch, waiting for letters that never come, bemused at this potential saviour’s alien behaviour. Because the film’s sympathy, if not necessarily its events, are always with the people far from the homes to which they can never return.

***** out of *****

Limbo is on general release.

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