Quietly intimate Limbo a humorously truthful marvel
May 1, 2021 | Sara Michelle Fetters
Limbo sticks with you long after the screen fades to black. For my part, I knew I enjoyed the sophomore feature-length outing by writer-director Ben Sharrock (Pikadero); I just didn't realize how much until a couple of days later. I couldn't get facets of this drama out of my head, and certain sequences were so eloquently masterful that it's likely they'll be burned into my brain forever.
Musician Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a Syrian refugee who has escaped to Britain and is now stationed on a lonely, sparsely populated Scottish island, waiting to hear from the government if he will be granted asylum. He is not allowed to work, and along with all of the other male migrants, he must attend daily classes on the best ways to assimilate and eventually become a productive member of British society.
It's all reminiscent of the opening narration of Casablanca. These lonely men, all of whom have escaped their homelands for a variety of personal reasons, many of them tragic, are trapped in a remote and desolate locale where they must wait - and wait... and wait... and wait - until they find out if they have received the proper papers to be released from their virtual imprisonment.
What in lesser hands could have either become something unrelenting bleak or heavy-handedly didactic, Sharrock has instead fashioned into a dryly funny, intimately personal character study that recalls the great works of filmmakers like Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Housekeeping) or Hal Ashby (Being There, Harold and Maude). There is a lived-in allure to Omar's travails that are fascinating, and as each layer of his metaphorical onion is peeled away, new, cozily universal truths are fastidiously revealed with magnetic precision.
As funny as it all might be at times, rest assured this is not a comedy. The inherent dramatics surrounding Omar's travails hit with a sudden, nakedly raw ferocity that's frequently surprising. Moreover, Sharrock does not skimp on the backstories of many of the other residents trying to make the best of their forced isolation. While their stories aren't front and center, each of the men still has a large part to play in the proceedings, and how they affect Omar is key to the constantly evolving puzzle the director asks the audience to piece together. A supporting performance from Vikash Bhai as a fellow refugee who forces his friendship on Omar (whether he likes it or not) is delightful, while almost all of the classroom scenes have a dryly acidic sense of truthful humor that's shockingly sublime.
The Scottish locale where the film was almost entirely shot quickly becomes another character fighting for the viewer's attention. Omar goes from being a stranger in a strange land, teased and made fun of by the locals, to someone who eventually knows each rocky outcropping and windswept hill like the back of his hand. He even assists when a sudden snowstorm devastates the island and puts the livestock in jeopardy, whereupon residents treat him like another trusted member of the community and not as an outsider intruding where he isn't welcome.
El-Masry, a recognizable character actor who has popped up in key roles in everything from television series like Jack Ryan and The Night Manager to feature films like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, is given his best role to date. He makes the most of the opportunity and then some. Sporting a dingy, pink-colored cast for the majority of the film that he uses like a metaphorical crutch to avoid difficult conversations, El-Masry displays a haunting physicality that I honestly did not expect.
There is so much more going on, all of it building to a conclusion that had me broadly grinning and giggling even as I reached for tissue after tissue to wipe away a tsunami of tears.
But Sharrock's film is worth discovering with as little foreknowledge as possible. Limbo resonates because, even though it ends up where I thought it would, the road there is so bewilderingly unique and imaginative that having any facet of that spoiled would be an outright travesty. It tells a quiet tale of sacrifice, forgiveness, and courage that's divine, and Omar's search for truth and acceptance in an uncertain, ever-changing world is as harrowing as it is lovely.