Review: Ben Sharrock's 'Limbo' is One of the Best Refugee Films Yet
by Alex Billington
April 30, 2021
"I cannot be myself back home." I need to write about this film because it's the best film I've seen in 2021 so far, and I've been thinking about it all the time since watching. Limbo is a dark comedy about the refugee experience in the UK written & directed by British filmmaker Ben Sharrock, and it was initially supposed to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival last year (before it was cancelled). Instead, it premiered at the Toronto, San Sebastian, Zurich, and London Film Festivals in the fall, and it has already been earning rave reviews. I'm so glad I finally caught up with it. Limbo would be my top pick for the Palme d'Or if Cannes had happened, really truly. I honestly want to drop the m word and call this a masterpiece. I loved it so much. It's perfect, there's not a thing to change about it. It even sticks the landing - in a seriously exhilarating way.
It's almost impossible to describe the film in writing and do it justice, because part of the magic of Limbo is that everything is perfectly crafted for the screen. It has a bit of a Wes Anderson look & feel, but with British sensibilities instead. It's set on a fictional "remote Scottish island", and the fact that is it just some unknown place, is also part of what makes it so enigmatic. Limbo introduces us to Omar, played by Amir El-Masry, a young Syrian refugee who has luckily made his way to the UK while his parents hide out in Turkey. But now he's caught in "limbo" in the UK refugee program - along with a handful of other refugees, including a man from Afghanistan, and a few others from Africa. They try to make the best of their dismal situation, but there's not much to do. They're not allowed to work, they can't get in any trouble, they just have to remain in this dreary town on this dreary island for months, years even, until they're hopefully, finally granted asylum.
There have been many good films made so far about the refugee experience in the western world, many of them heartbreaking dramas. Or stories about how hard it is to try and make a new home in a foreign land and survive (see: His House). Many of them also remind us they take these perilous journeys to far away lands because it's even worse to stay home. Limbo is one of the first films I've seen that tries, with very dry black comedy, to make light of their situation. Or at least make fun of it. The humor is hilariously spot on, even too spot on sometimes, mocking how the UK deals with and treats refugees, and how many refugees are much, much smarter than most people think. Which is not surprising. But part of this film's brilliance is the way it handles that awkward humor and allows us to sympathize with Omar through the comedy. There's nothing to laugh at about his situation, but we're given a chance to laugh, which makes a world of difference.
Aside from endless waiting, the film's narrative is mainly about Omar trying to adjust to this new place and hopefully make a new home there if it all works out. There's a spectacularly emotional moment at the end that is the culmination of all that the film has been leading up to and commenting on - the freedom for one to express themselves truly and freely. Even in a new land, where "freedom" is supposedly the most valuable thing, Omar still can't be truly free to express himself honestly. He used to have this freedom in Syria, but that went away, and he doesn't want to lose himself forever. The film's ultimate message seems to be a very potent, very emotional reminder that we're not seeing refugees for who they truly are: beautiful, brilliant, complex, talented people just like me or you. Just like any other White person. And the way the film brings us to this revelation is with a full helping of heart and compassion, topped with some good-hearted humor.
Ben Sharrock's Limbo is pitch perfect filmmaking, it hits every note. The cinematography by Nick Cooke is perfect, the performances by the entire cast are perfect; the entire concept is unique and Sharrock brings it to life on screen perfectly. As cliche as it might be, I have to say how glad I am that this film exists, and was made, and can be seen by everyone soon. The beautiful world of cinema is that much better with Limbo in it.