Limbo (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Refugees stuck in a remote Scottish island

“Limbo” is a small offbeat film about a group of refugees stuck in a remote Scottish island. While often recognizing their quiet desperation and frustration in a number of achingly melancholic moments, the movie is also often surprisingly funny with its absurd deadpan humor coupled with some quirky touches, and it is also quite fascinating to see how this seemingly modest but undeniably charming piece work constantly swings back and forth between comedy and drama without cheapening neither of them at all.

The story is mainly told via the viewpoint of Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian musician who has recently stayed in that Scottish island along with several other refugees. They have all been awaiting the results of their asylum claims while sometimes attending an elementary class on proper social interactions in the British society, and the opening scene shows them phlegmatically watching their two instructors solemnly demonstrating to them how to behave in front of a woman to date.

Omar has resided in a small house along with three other refugees: Farhad (Vikash Bhai), Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah). Without much to do except waiting outside for any notification letter to be delivered, they usually spend time on watching a certain famous American TV sitcom series, and we later get a small amusing moment when two of them zealously discuss on the relationship development between the two lead characters of that American TV sitcom series.

Although he sometimes calls to his parents currently staying in Turkey, Omar cannot help but feel not only lonely but also uncertain about what will happen next and what he will do about that. While his country is still being shaken up by the ongoing civil war, his parents often talk about his older brother who chose to stay in Syria for joining the rebel army, and he often wonders whether he made a right decision when he decided to leave Syria a few years ago.

At least, he has kept his grandfather’s oud (It is one of those traditional Arab instruments, by the way) intact during all those years of struggle and plight, but he is not particularly willing to play it even though he carries it all the time. As shown by a rough video clip from his past, there was a time when he was a promising musician, but he seems to have lost his groove due to his depressing current circumstance, and he is not brightened up much even when Farhad later suggests to him that he should play it in front of local people with Farhad acting as his agent/manager.

In case of the local people of the island, most of them do not mind much the presence of Omar and other refugees in their island, though they do not show much hospitality to the refugees in the island either. At one point, Omar comes across a bunch of local young people, and these young people are initially a bit too rude and insensitive to him, but they eventually make him have a little fun time with them on a nearby beach.

While all these and other absurd moments happen along the story, Omar and his fellow refugees remain mostly calm and detached, and that is the main source of the deadpan comedy of the screenplay by director/writer Ben Sharrock. For example, the scene involved with a mail delivery guy looks rather silly at first with a piece of classic opera music played on the soundtrack, but then it brings out more laughs than expected via sharp wit and exact coming timing. In addition to enhancing many of those comic moments in the film via precise scene composition and thoughtful camera movement, the cinematography by Nick Cooke steadily fills the screen of 1.33:1 ratio with the haunting gray aura of ennui and melancholy, and that further accentuates the funny aspects of the film.

In the meantime, the movie also gradually reveals more of the human depth of not only Omar but also his fellow refugees. Although they often bicker with each other over a number of minor things, Wasef and Abedi turn out to have depended more on each other, and there is a little poignant moment when they have a silent moment of reconciliation not long after having a big personal clash between them at the aforementioned elementary class. In case of Farhad, you can easily guess a personal reason behind his refugee status, but it is later revealed with considerable pathos, even though you are still amused by his odd affection toward a chicken which he names after a certain famous British singer.

The main performers of the film are all commendable in their unadorned natural performances, and I was rather surprised to learn later that many of them actually have considerable acting experience. While Amir El-Masry earnestly functions as the emotional center of the film, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, and Kwabena Ansah hold each own place around El-Masry, and Kenneth Collard and Sidse Babett Knudsen are often hilarious as the deadly serious class instructors in the movie.

“Limbo” is the first feature film from Sharrock, who previously made several short films before making a feature film debut here in this movie. While frequently savoring its genuinely funny moments, I also admired its skillful and effortless handling of mood, story, and characters, and I was particularly impressed by how it effortlessly delivers the final scene with considerable emotional power you will have to experience for yourself. In short, this is one of the most impressive debut feature films of this year, and I think you must not miss this little but remarkable gem.

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