Published On May 6, 2021 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

Starring Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard, Kais Nashef, Sidse Babett Knudsen
Written by Ben Sharrock
Directed by Ben Sharrock
Produced by Irune Gurtubai and Angus Lamont
Cinematography by Nick Cooke
Edited by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti
Music by Hutch Demouilpied

“Limbo,” a comedy-drama about a group of lovable, hapless and helpless–through no fault of their own–immigrants confined to a somewhat beautiful, somewhat terrifying and wholly remote and forlorn island in Scotland while they await decisions about their visa approval status, is a heartwarming, funny, upbeat (despite its somewhat bleak story and setting) and ultimately hopeful tale that is thoroughly entertaining. The film is entertaining while also delivering a meaningful message about the issues of war, despots, dictators and war’s devastating impact on immigration.

Writer and director Ben Sharrock makes his points about war and immigration and other concurrent, associated problems clearly, but not in a heavy-handed, lecturing manner, and he wisely lets his messages come through clearly, but also in an appropriately understated way, which is appropriate considering the overall comedic nature of the movie. With “Limbo,” one sympathizes with the immigrants’ status of being in, well, limbo, but Sharrock also presents these people and their situations in a context where the people are real people; the setting is very real, unique and original; the situations are very real–but not real in a horrid, terrifying or brutal manner; the characters are likeable and even loveable; and one can’t help but laugh along with the characters at the overall absurdity and ridiculousness of their respective situation (in the movie’s intended comedic context, of course). Here they are, these pleasant, patient immigrants, living on this remote island literally in the middle of nowhere, far from, well, everything, without much to do, with few places to go and few people around them, yet they maintain their dignity and, above all else, their hope, continually wishing of a better life, and continually hoping that they will eventually get approved to enter Scotland as new citizens.

Sharrock succeeds in balancing the inherent sadness and desperateness of this situation with the positive aspects of that inspiring sense of hope and optimism, presenting the immigrants’ highs and lows, ups and downs, aspirations and dreams, small victories and big disappointments, all mixing together as they try to get by on an island wrecked and wracked by isolation, cold, bitter winds, churning waters, distance, loneliness and harshness. Of course, the island and its brutal weather and living conditions are obvious symbols of the plight that immigrants face not just on remote Scottish islands, but everywhere in the world. Yet, again, Sharrock is smart enough to not over-play his hand with the remote island symbolism, letting the setting, its weather and its stark, natural beauty and power deliver the symbolism in a more natural, organic way. Thus, “Limbo” is a movie with its symbolism and messages are obvious, but not too obvious, presented in such a unique, inventive manner that, again, the viewer appreciates the messages because they come through in such a manner that you immediately get the point of it all, but you also appreciate the way in which the message is delivered.

All of this appreciation for the messaging comes back, of course, to the light-hearted, warm-hearted and generally comedic manner that the movie is wrapped in. The characters–the immigrants and the local townsmen, businessmen and officials–are all presented sympathetically and pleasantly, as if everyone, the locals and officials included, understand, care about and sympathize with the immigrants’ plight, status and situation. Thus, “Limbo” is one of those movies where every character is likeable, presentable and understandable, and it’s never difficult to understand, relate to, care about–and like–the motives and emotions of the people. The locals treat the immigrants well on this remote island, they welcome them, and they do what they can to assist, educate and help them while they’re there. And the immigrants simply wait out their stay in limbo, trying to maintain some semblance of a regular life with their stark little houses, plain food, sputtering televisions, educational, klunky yet well-intended classes presented by the locals, telephone calls to loved ones, and even walks and bike rides in the desolate, harsh–but still strangely beautiful–Scottish isle countryside.

It’s all original, unique, inventive and completely watchable and enjoyable. Sharrock and his cast and crew are to be complimented for presenting a loveable, approachable and entertaining movie about two subjects that, of course, in real life are far from loveable, approachable and entertaining–immigration and war. And war is what “Limbo” is also about, in addition to the host of problems surrounding immigration, for it’s war in their homelands that has driven the core, central immigrant characters to this Scottish isle. It’s war that is driving their home countries apart, disrupting people’s lives, tearing families apart–and driving people out of their home countries. And that is a major point of the immigration problem not just in the movie “Limbo,” but in real life: We always have to look at, analyze and try to dissect the over-riding home-country problems in immigrants’ home countries that are actually causing people to flee their homes, families and countries.

War, dictators, despots, crumbling economies, poorly-run countries, corrupt governments, corrupt politicians, poverty, diseases, lack of health care, lack of education, poor education, mistreatment by police and government officials, oppression, lack of freedoms, human rights violations, civil rights violations, restrictive and psycho religions and religious tenets, over-population and scores of other very real, very serious problems in countries around the world–these problems are the root causes and problems prompting and causing immigration problems in every country. And as serious as these scores of problems are, they never seem to get solved, as “Limbo” symbolizes so clearly, yet so poetically and beautifully. Behind and beyond the humor and compassion in the film, the bubbling, boiling undercurrents that affect these poor immigrants and their home countries–and all of the aforementioned societal, cultural, governmental, political and civil problems–are felt, as the characters discuss just what it is that brought them to a remote, stark, faraway island in Scotland to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

It’s all tragic, of course, but, again, Sharrock has decided to let the messaging come through real people who filmgoers can relate to, and care about, on a human, humane, humorous level.

The main character is just such a human, humane, likeable, relatable person–Omar, a young, reserved and shy immigrant from war-torn Syria. Omar has left his fractured family, in which his hard-working, caring and dignified parents are dealing with the basic destruction of their home country and subsequent financial strains on the family, and in which his activist brother has left to fight as a rebel to save their country, to try to obtain a better life in Scotland, where he hopes to get a good job, help out his family and eventually bring them all to Scotland to be with him, in a better land and in a better life. Omar is quiet, soft-spoken, non-confrontational, patient, and sweet, even. He’s basically a young adult just trying to help out his family, who he cares for and loves very much. And, in a wonderful storyline and plot point, Omar carries with him among his very few possessions his grandfather’s oud, a Middle Eastern-style stringed instrument that is similar to a lute. Back home in Syria, Omar was a respected, noted and much-loved oud musician who would play wonderful songs for his community.

But here on this island somewhere amid nowheresville in remote Scotland, Omar has no audience to play to, no venue to play in, and a decreasing sense of inspiration to even play. Nevertheless, he carries his precious oud with him wherever he goes–a very real symbol and connection to his family, his homeland, his country and his people. To watch this young, likeable adult walk along these remote roads, paths, fields and shorelines of this island, always carrying his oud, is just touching–and highly emotional. However, unfortunately, Omar is losing his ability to even play–another symbol of the downsides of immigration, and how the entire process can drain a person’s hopes, inspirations and dreams. Omar clings to his oud, but he knows that he cannot just carry the instrument around–he must remember and strive to continue to play the music, for that will keep him and his ancestral, cultural traditions and connections alive.

Omar has another way of connecting–frequent, fractured phone calls to his parents back in Syria. These moments, in which Omar reaches out to his parents during emotional phone calls made inside a phone booth literally in the middle of a barren road and field, are also touching–and heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. His parents are, well, regular, normal parents in these calls–amid all of the difficulties everyone is facing, Omar’s Mom nags Omar about regularly washing his bedding–but Omar knows that they are also parents who are facing increasingly difficult situations at home. The war is tearing literally everything apart. To watch Omar talk with his parents during these calls, and to appreciate the various levels that the calls and conversations convey and represent, is just beautiful, moving filmmaking at its best. Sharrock has crafted a series of calls that also convey everything that is going on–and, again, the calls between Omar and his parents are equally comedic, dramatic and tragic, all conveying an array of emotions that everyone can relate with.

Actor Amir El-Masry is exceptional in his portrayal of Omar, and it’s one of those performances that sneaks up on you. Omar is usually quiet, shy and reserved, but you can feel his emotions burbling and bubbling up beneath his young, optimistic veneer. El-Masry maintains that even-handed, under-stated characterization, and it’s that approach that lets people relate to Omar and his situation. Omar is not yelling, screaming, throwing things, getting out of hand–that would ruin everything in terms of the story, the character and the movie. That would also be cliched. Instead, Sharrock has crafted the character of Omar as more real, down-to-earth–and hopeful. Despite everything, and despite doubts about his journey to Scotland, Omar maintains hope that he will get admitted to Scotland, and that he will indeed, someday, get to help his family. It’s that youthful, positive sense of hope that carries Omar, his fellow immigrants, the story–and the movie continually forward.

Credit must also go to the actors playing the characters that accompany Omar on the island as they all await their status: Vikash Bhai is equally likeable, loveable, sympathetic as fellow immigrant Farhad–and Bhai is also, at times, flat-out hilarious, also in an under-stated, deadpan manner. Bhai, a naturally gifted comedic actor, provides much of the needed comic relief, as his Farhad is also an eternal optimist. He adopts a local chicken, names the chicken Freddie Mercury, and, once he discovers that Omar plays the oud, promptly declares himself as Omar’s agent, manager and representative–even though there’s not much to manage or represent Omar to on their remote island! Farhad and Omar also develop a friendship that is, again, also touching, warm-hearted and just plain nice and caring. Ola Orebiyi as Wasef and Kwabena Ansah as Abedi round out the small group of immigrants and friends in this group that the world has strangely thrown together in this strange place.

They all are indeed strangers in a strange land, but they all do their best to survive, get along and help each other the best that they can. There are some difficulties and some strife, yes, but that’s to be expected amid their unusual surroundings and situations. Yet these four characters work together and try to overcome their difficulties and help each other, and it’s inspiring to see them either try to come together, or actually come together to help out each other.

A sincere, helpful group of Scottish locals do their best to help out these immigrants, but they, too, are confined by rules, laws, regulations, finances and their location. The help offered by the locals to the immigrants is also–yes–touching and emotional.

For that is what Ben Sharrock has crafted–a beautiful, loving, kind, caring, touching and emotional story and movie about strangers in a strange land, always hoping that they can overcome their war and immigration difficulties and find promise, fortune, hope and a better life in a new land. With that basic story and approach, Sharrock has also crafted a story about optimism and hope amid the worst of situations, and he provides a needed reminder that, sometimes, perhaps even often, there can be a positive outcome for immigrants. And during these modern times, when immigration is still a very serious problem worldwide–including right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.–that message of optimism and hope for immigrants is very much needed, of course. We all wish for a better life, and we should all wish that those immigrants searching for their better life can one day find that happy ending to their journey.

Of course, folks are wondering here if Omar eventually finds his renewed inspiration to take out his oud and play again, symbolizing that sense of re-discovered optimism and hope. For the answer to that question, you’ll just have to watch this wonderful, inspiring movie, “Limbo,” and feel those feelings of hope, optimism and inspiration yourself, right along with Omar, his family, Farhad, the other immigrants, the locals, and even Farhad’s chicken, Freddie Mercury. You’ll be glad that you spent time with these characters, and this movie.


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