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(Credit: TIFF)

'Limbo' Review: Ben Sharrock's touching refugee drama

'Limbo' - Ben Sharrock
3.9

In the desolate, ethereal plains of Scotland’s countryside, a banner reading ‘Refugees Welcome’ drapes from the grey exterior of a flat, recreational centre. A pitiful excuse for a facility, the personal support inside the building isn’t too much better, headed up by two bickering social workers totally ignorant to the wider issues facing the 30-or-so group of refugees. The building makes up the setting for much of Ben Sharrock’s second feature film, a gentle emotional drama considering the psychological toll put upon discriminated refugees who come to Great Britain. 

Requesting asylum in the UK, Omar (Amir El-Masry) is sent to a remote Scottish island where he is kept with several other refugees, each seeking safety and a new life. A promising young musician, Omar and his oud (a short-necked, pear-shaped guitar) are sent to live with the free-spirited Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and spiritual brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah). 

Together they form a familial bond, bickering and in-fighting, whilst each praying for each others’ release from their strange existence where life is in limbo. It is the relationship between these four figures, and particularly Omar and Farhad, where Sharrock’s film excels, with the pair’s opposing attitudes expressing two sides of the same coin in accordance with their situation. 

With little to do within the confines of the dull home they reside in, the group take to watching multiple reruns of friends on DVD and an old cathode ray television the size of a shoebox. Its whimsical, quirky aesthetic certainly echoes with the same style as Wes Anderson’s artistic, familial tales, sharing a similar symmetrical cinematic style too. Such separate the characters from the landscape, making them appear larger than life by providing personality and colour to the otherwise bleak wilderness. Though this also elicits a certain artificial quality when pushed too far, with social workers Boris (Kenneth Collard) and Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) turning into unnecessary caricatures, devaluing an otherwise poignant tale. 

Devalued perhaps, but not to a damaging effect, with Sharrock’s touching screenplay speaking of a universal truth for so many around the world. Speaking to ScreenRant in a recent interview, Sharrock’s passion for telling the true story behind Limbo remains pertinent, noting: “When the refugee crisis became very prevalent in the media, I was just really struck by the representation of refugees, and how we were looking at refugees as numbers and statistics”. Continuing, he rightfully observes, “We had this demonising of refugees on one side, and we have the pitying of refugees on the other side.”

Standing like statues on the Scottish hills, the characters of Sharrock’s film feel victims to the will of their surroundings and those that dictate their fate. Whilst their lives may be in limbo between the troubling knowledge of their youth and the uncharted territory of their future, they are not casualties of their own lives but simply souls looking to relocate their lives to new soil.  

In the still countryside of the Scottish hills, life moves very slowly, if at all, with even the inhabitants of the unnamed location living in some sort of empty reality. Whilst the refugees may be demonised by the youth of the land, and in some cases treated with harsh prejudice, their existence appears to be abundantly similar to the settlers of the island. Their right to live is, of course, no different to anyone else’s.

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