Movie Review ~ Limbo

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An offbeat observation of refugees waiting to be granted asylum on a fictional remote Scottish island focusing on Omar, a young Syrian musician who is burdened by the weight of his grandfather’s oud, which he has carried all the way from his homeland. 

Stars: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kais Nashif, Kenneth Collard 

Director: Ben Sharrock 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 103 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Back in my early college days as I was starting to fine tune my movie tastes and expand my horizons past the multiplexes with easily accessible titles, I became a frequent visitor to the local art house theater that was on a good run of films which could easily keep one busy from week to week.  In fact, the selections were so stellar that it wasn’t uncommon for you to show up, realize a showtime was sold out and not be bothered in the least to just buy a ticket to whatever was starting next.  This went on for some time and often peaked in awards season.  It was the period after all the awards had been handed out that the real interesting properties would arrive and my education got even more eclectic.  Now, I could take in international offerings there would be no way I’d have access to normally and I wasn’t very discerning on what I’d slap down some of my hard-earned student worker money for. 

The new drama Limbo reminded me so much of one of those movies I’d have taken a chance on back then and walked out of thinking I had a sort of a one upmanship bragging rights on others.  Which is silly. It didn’t make me any smarter than my fellow film fanatic and spoke nothing to the overall quality of the movie, it just was a film I saw for no other reason than it was there.  Of course, here and now I made a choice to see an advanced screening of Limbo which is opening in theaters and having seen several hundred movies since those halcyon days when moviegoing was less complicated I feel more inclined to provide the kind of feedback I don’t think I could have given then.

Waiting for asylum on a Scottish island dreamt up by writer/director Ben Sharrock, the refugees we meet are from places such as Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria.  All are waiting for decisions that will tell them whether they can remain in the United Kingdom or be sent back to their native land.  Some have been waiting for years, others like Omar (Amir El-Masry, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) are recent arrivals still adjusting to life on the windy isle.  Always carrying his grandfather’s oud (a stringed instrument resembling a lute) which reminds him of his days as a musician, Omar makes frequent calls to his relocated parents that compare him to his older brother that stayed behind to fight for their country. 

As they wait, the men attend classes on adjusting to life with English customs taught by Helga, the lone female seen in the film (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Inferno), and get to know one another better.  There’s a main foursome of men that make-up Omar’s core group, including Freddie Mercury loving Farhad (Vikash Bhai) an eccentric Afghan nearing his third year on the island who seeks asylum so he can continue to live his true self. On the polar opposite side of the coin, Nigerian brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi, Cherry) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) aren’t as open as Farhad is for reasons that slowly come into focus the more we learn about their backstory.  Hoping to play soccer when his asylum is granted, Wasef feels the burden of caring for Abedi, routinely causing strife between the two of them. 

If you do your homework on film before seeing them and read several reviews before making a decision (and you really should, second or third opinions are always great) you’re going to see Limbo described as “offbeat” and “deadpan” and that’s what originally drew me to it.  Despite not being immediately sold based on the preview alone, I chalked it up to a marketing misstep and scootched my way under the bar like a true limbo star because I dig these non-U.S. films that handle comedy in ways far different than we would.  Outside of our country, comedy is more observational than physical, more cerebral than lowbrow so that’s why it’s possible to have a comedy with few “laughs” but still have a wealth of humor. 

What I’ve learned from my experience with Limbo is that there’s a vast difference between “deadpan” and what the film really is: dour.  Although it flirts with fun in the wildly strange moments involving Helga’s class (the opening of the movie tricks you right away), Sharrock is much more in favor of following glum Omar around the gloomy island.  There’s little humor of any level to be found in rather long stretches of the film, which isn’t a bad thing if it’s substituted for material that sticks to the bones in a similar way.  It didn’t for me.

Perhaps it’s because El-Masry’s performance aids in that sinking into the bleak of it all.  This is not saying the character needs to be “happy” or anything of that nature, it’s just that when all you have in your film is sad conversations on a lone payphone sprinkled in amongst arch classes on etiquette, you can’t turn around and claim “offbeat” or “deadpan” as your subgenre of choice.  I struggled with staying involved or engaged with any of the characters aside from Farhad and even he fell victim to Sharrock making him overly odd and not just merely eccentric. 

Who knows?  Maybe this is one you did have to see in a dark theater with an audience getting the full experience of Limbo (and see some of the rather beautiful scenery) who could help you with audible cues to gauge their response.  Then you’d at least know if the movie called for reactions along the way.  Hey, at least you’d get popcorn for your efforts.