Written and directed by Ben Sharrock, Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a promising young musician, separated from his Syrian family, he is stuck on a remote Scottish island awaiting the fate of his asylum request. Also starring: Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard.
Possibly the biggest surprise from London Film Festival 2020, the way that this film opens practically leads you to believe that it’s set in the 1980’s not modern day and what you realise as it moves forward is how perfectly that encapsulates the message it’s sending about the experience of asylum seekers in Britain. Its opening is odd and awkward but in the best way because it’s a very classic British sense of humour, to find the comedy in discomfort, as well as in the inappropriate, insulting and condescending. It really leans into its parody-esque tone, moving overly slowly at times to draw out the comedy and it was utterly brilliant to start the film in this manner to ease you into the story and hook you with its charm before bringing down the hammer with its larger dramatic arc.
It truly blends comedy with drama perfectly, the humour offsets the sincere, heart-breaking sadness that lies within its story. The writing so succinctly brings out this damning portrayal of how Britain treats asylum seekers, in this case actively pushing them to their limits to get them to give up their application, it’s poignant, relevant, touching and surprisingly eloquent. It’s all emphasised by the choice for it to take place in such a remote location, it’s almost as if they exist in this bubble of reality, outside of the rest of the world, giving it this timeless almost surreal quality which is balanced well with its heavy dose of reality. The creation of Omar (El-Masry) is brilliant, he’s such a perfect character, he’s sympathetic, intelligent and kind but he’s also flawed, struggles and is ultimately very human which you would imagine is a given but finding a character such as this is not a common thing.
An aspect that obviously is only furthered by El-Masry’s wonderful performance, he’s effortless to watch and is consistently engrossing throughout, he’s a character that you genuinely want to know what happens to him next when the camera stops rolling. He has such a stillness to him but the moments arise for him to bring through a stronger emotion, he gives such a layered and heartfelt portrayal. He has a fantastic support cast but a particular highlight is Vikash Bhai as Farhad, friend and manager, he’s so clumsy yet overtly confident and surprisingly sure of himself. He brings through a great deal of comedy and makes a great pairing for Omar as he pushes him to be more aware of himself and to not give up on things that give him joy. They have a charmingly silly friendship at times which adds a touch of sweetness to their dark situation, creating a bond out of their mutual state of limbo.
It was an unusual choice for a film such as this to shoot in a 4:3 ratio, but it does add to the personality of the visual and that timeless quality. The direction is superb and it’s supported by stunning cinematography (by Nick Cooke), they really make the most out of the picturesque location, bringing through a deep sense of isolation and being almost entirely removed from society as the story truly intends, to demonstrate their mistreatment and the bullying tactics used against them. There’s a very honest nature to the visual, it may include some striking landscapes but that doesn’t take away from capturing how lacking in comfort their surroundings are.
Limbo is touching, funny, honest and heart-breaking, it may be the best blend of comedy and drama to come around in quite a while, it takes you entirely by surprise how it balances being hilarious with the serious, poignant nature of its story. Sharrock has achieved something special here, through the film he’s condemning the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK but he’s also telling a story that’s relatable on a larger scale, about trying to find a better life, staying connected with your family and losing touch with your passions. Amir El-Masry gives an excellent performance that keeps you undoubtedly glued to the screen throughout, he gives Omar such a wonderful personality and really strikes at your heart in his emotional scenes. This is the sort of film you might call a ‘hidden gem’ but here’s hoping it won’t be so hidden and reach the larger audience it deserves so that more people can delight in its excellence.