A Scottish island is the setting for a deeply sympathetic view of the plight of asylum seekers.



Ben Sharrock’s film on which he is both writer and director is a work that leaves me with mixed feelings. Its qualities matter much more than its defects for the simple reason that Limbo is a sensitive and deeply concerned portrayal of immigrants waiting to hear if their applications for asylum in Britain have been approved. This is the limbo of the title and one suspects that the film’s setting, an island off the Scottish coast, has itself been chosen as a forlorn location that evokes that state and does so poetically. The two central figures are a young Syrian, Omar (Amir El-Masry) and Farhad (Vikash Bhai) who is from Afghanistan. The friendship that develops between these two is admirably conveyed by the actors and it’s all the more touching because Sharrock excludes any sentimentality.


While all of this is admirable, there is a sense that the film gains weight against the odds. That is because from the outset two factors are present that are unhelpful. The two leads are introduced to us along with two other refugees introduced as brothers, these being Abedi, a Ghanaian (Kwabena Ansah), and Wasef played by Ola Orebiyi. All four are splendidly naturalistic figure but Sharrock chooses to put them on screen in shots that frequently seem self-consciously posed, both arty and artificial. They occur in the very first scene which involves two officials who run classes for refugees. This set-up makes for an intriguing opening, but the humour brought in is another factor that comes over as less than wholly naturalistic (a later joke features a postman who likes to listen to operatic arias and these are heard stopping and starting with his van although at one point the singing is carried over into the next scene). One could see in this the possible influence of Aki Kaurismäki whose 2011 film Le Havre is a distant relation of this piece, but Sharrock is less adept than the Finnish filmmaker at successfully blending stylised humour and serious observations concerning immigrants.


As it is, Limbo is very much at its best when it opts for serious simplicity, a tone that allows its heartfelt sympathy for refugees to express itself fully. But, even if the humour were downplayed, that would still not eliminate all the problems, as witness a move away from the naturalism of the later scenes for an imagined encounter between Omar and his estranged brother (Kais Nashif). It’s quite outside the style of the rest of the film and far more effective is an episode which due to its impact plays as the film’s climax. Here Omar, once again taking up the oud, an instrument with strong family associations and links with his life in Syria, gives a recital. This might have provided a very conventional upbeat conclusion, but Sharrock avoids that thanks to his sensitivity in recognising the deep level of significance that this music has. Consequently, this scene rounds off most aptly a film which, however uneven, has its heart firmly in the right place.




Cast: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard, Kais Nashif, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Grace Chilton, Sanjeev Kohli, Cameron Fulton, Ellie Haddington, Lewis Gribben.


Dir Ben Sharrock, Pro Irune Gurtubai and Angus Lamont, Screenplay Ben Sharrock, Ph Nick Cooke, Pro Des Andy Drummond, Ed Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, Music Hutch Demouilpied, Costumes Holly Rebecca.


Caravan Cinema/Creative Scotland/British Film Institute-Mubi.
103 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 30 July 2021. Cert. PG.