Limbo: Original story of asylum seekers on a remote island

This wonderful, not-to-be-missed comedy finds new ways to tell old stories

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Director: Ben Sharrock
Cert: 15A
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard, Kais Nashif
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

Hearing that the second film from Ben Sharrock concerns asylum seekers on a remote Scottish island, the fair-minded observer might reasonably assume we are in for a grim drama in the style of a 1970s Play for Today.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The extraordinary opening sequence, in which patronising officials deliver a drama aimed at instructing their charges how to interact with the opposite sex, immediately points us in a different direction.

The dry, head-on absurdity plays like something from one of Roy Andersson's singular diversions. But Limbo is breezier than that comparison suggests. There is some of Bill Forsyth's wistfulness here. The comedy also has the occasional undertow of menace – teenagers warn the heroes not to rape anybody – you get from Shane Meadows at his best. All of which futile digging around is an obtuse way of welcoming an original and refreshing new voice.

Omar (Amir El-Masry) has made his way from Syria while his older brother stayed at home to fight. Our protagonist is a gifted oud player but, following a hand injury, is currently able only to carry the instrument about like a comforting totem. His roommates Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) are from Africa. Another pal, Farhad (Vikash Bhai), who is from Afghanistan, decides to become Omar’s manager and talk him back into playing the oud.


Long painful phone calls home from an isolated phone box connect us to earlier schools of displacement. “Your dad’s asking if it’s like Guantanamo,” mum wonders. It isn’t. But this Limbo has its own pressures.

Sharrock has suggested that he filmed in the narrow Academy ratio to remind us how we tend to put refugees into boxes, but that gives a false impression of the subtle, oblique techniques on display here. The off-centre nature of the humour presses home how skewed the world has become for the men on this austerely lovely island. One could sail through long sections of the picture without considering the wider tragedies. They are, however, waiting for us when we pause and consider what’s outside the tight frame.

This is a wonderful comedy that savours its remote environment while keeping its subjects at the centre of the story. There are always new ways of telling the era’s most unavoidable sad stories. Not to be missed.

In cinemas from July 30th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist