On the surface, Limbo could be mistaken for a Wes Anderson movie. Writer/director Ben Sharrock’s debut feature possesses an aesthetic akin to Anderson’s work, as well as a quirky edge. As the film proceeds, though, Limbo finds a voice that’s all its own. Anderson’s movies exist in worlds of their own. Sharrock’s film exists somewhere between reality and surreal fantasy, which is appropriate given its title. It unearths the emptiness and repetition one would likely experience in limbo, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Amir El-Masry received a Best Actor nomination from the British Independent Film Awards for his performance here as Omar. While El-Masry has had supporting roles in blockbusters like The Rise of Skywalker and high-profile shows like Jack Ryan, Limbo is perhaps the best representation of his acting potential. He gives an empathetic performance as a Syrian refugee ready to start a new chapter. Omar finds himself stuck on a Scottish island, though, waiting with several others for his asylum request to be answered. Making matters even more insufferable, they’re forced to take a cultural awareness course with two inept instructors, hilariously played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard. The duo establishes an offbeat tone with their opening dance number, which is like the bizarro version of Dirty Dancing.
Based on its early scenes, as well as the introduction of a chicken, the audience might assume that they’re watching a successor to Napoleon Dynamite. Limbo catches viewers off guard with its depth and moments of heartbreak, though. While the film takes a unique approach to refugee life, it still gets to the root of that experience. We feel the isolation these characters endure as they wait around a flat with little furniture and nothing but Friends DVDs to watch. The only way for them to contact the outside world is by traveling to the nearest phone booth. What gets them through the day is the unlikely friendships that develop and the promise of a better life.
Vikash Bhai’s Farhad desires to work in an office and wear a suit, a notion that most of us would take for granted. Ola Orebiyi’s Wasef dreams of playing football, which his fellow asylum seekers don’t see as practical. As for Omar, he’s stuck in more ways than one. He carries around his grandfather’s oud in a heavy case, but he isn’t eager to play it. Omar reflects on who he was before arriving on the island and who he will become when/if he’s granted asylum. How much baggage does he take with him and how much does he leave behind? The film’s idea of limbo is just as much internal as it is external.
Sharrock conveys these themes through showing rather than telling. Limbo is visually bleak throughout, but a few prominent colors stick out. This creates consistently gloomy atmosphere that’s not without hope. Limbo was nominated for Outstanding British Film at the 2021 BAFTA Awards. It’s sure to be remembered as a promising turning point in the careers of Sharrock, El-Masry, and everyone else involved. You might not want to stay in the film’s environment, but you’ll definitely want to see where life takes these people next.