Film Reviews

“Humorous Insight Into Experience Of Asylum Seekers” – Film Review: Limbo

Alex Watkin

Limbo’s robust visual language and dry wit are its strength, but the story of central protagonist Omar (Amir El-Masry) is unfortunately a little laboured. Omar is a Syrian refuge who is waiting for UK asylum on a remote Scottish Island. Director Ben Sharrock doesn’t embellish the story with sensationalised drama and instead utilises deadpan absurdist humour, with the film’s funniest elements being the cultural integration classes along with any appearance of fellow asylum seeker and Freddie Mercury super fan Farhad (Vikash Bhai).

The visual language also ensures the vast island landscapes don’t create a feeling of limitless freedom

The film’s visual language provides bite to the comedy; everything is tightly composed with slightly unnatural blocking, always giving an off-kilter flavour to the humour. The visual language also ensures the vast island landscapes don’t create a feeling of limitless freedom, but instead a feeling of entrapment and isolation.

Sharrock’s use of the traditional Academy aspect ratio, which is squarer than conventional widescreen, creates this feeling of purgatory and seclusion. This manipulation of the landscape through a specific cinematic schema to embody the emotions of the central character is excellent filmmaking. It’s not often enough that a visual language is genuinely related to the substance of a film rather than born out of predetermined aesthetic sensibilities.  

It’s unfortunate that this level of inventiveness isn’t true for the character arch of protagonist Omar. Physically, he begins and ends the film in the same place, waiting for asylum. What changes is psychological. In simplistic terms, at the beginning he is mourning the loss of his identity as an oud musician and by the end that identity is renewed. This is not the problem, the problem is why he changes. The moments that build to the shift provide very little besides straightforward platitudes and so the emotional ending comes off as obligatory and falls a little flat.

This is not to say the switch comes out of nowhere; it certainly makes sense. But Limbo misses an opportunity as the true intrigue in this story lies in the reason why Omar is able to rekindle his vitality in this seemingly desolate inhuman situation. Unfortunately, it never delves deep enough below the surface to leave a meaningful lasting impression.

Limbo is relatively organic despite a challenging setting

There are plenty of films about waiting and dullness, often they unfold completely naturally, but sometimes  they can fall into the trap of fighting against the tedium and start stretching for stuff to happen.  Limbo is somewhere in the middle, there are moments like an obligatory storm where the film feels a little keen to put something visually dynamic onscreen. However, for the most part, Limbo is relatively organic despite a challenging setting.

Sharrock’s sense of humour shines through in Limbo. The unique visual language causes a constant sense of visual comedy and the comedic writing is always smart and witty. As a dramatic piece, the side characters’ stories are often better executed than Omar’s, thankfully though it avoids a tidy ending that tries to solve the refugee crisis. The destination is certainly not Limbo’s problem, the journey is.

three stars

Alex Watkin

Featured image courtesy of Roey Ahram via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @limbofilm via No changes made to these images.

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