As filmmakers explore immigration and those seeking asylum in a country, there can be a tendency to make stories that are strictly about the bureaucracy involved. Ben Sharrock's debut film takes a unique approach to the topic of asylum speakers by setting the film in a world that is a few notches away from reality. This allows him to make something original that still resonates truthfully. Limbo is an affecting and often funny tale that never forgets that at the core of these kinds of stories is a sad truth about the reality of asylum seekers and the few opportunities they are given.
Taking place on a non-existent Scottish island where the local population is tiny and local amenities are scarce, Limbo follows Omar (Amir El-Masry) who fled from Syria in hope of a better life. Life on the island is dull. Healthcare consists of a mobile hut that keeps promising some kind of doctor will be coming soon. The town is sparse, like the title suggests this is a true limbo for those who have been posted there. They must wait for an indeterminate amount of time for their applications to process. Omar is stuck.
Omar plays the Oud, an instrument kind of like a lute, and is quite a master at it. His father and mother fled to Instanbul and when Omar talks to them, they judge him and push him to play his Oud. Omar's brother stayed to fight in Syria and this has created a rift in the family. Omar was told to flee but is not judged for it. Omar must figure out his place in life and the direction he wants to take. He is in limbo both physically and spiritually, needing to find his own way.
Limbo has an absurd comedic tone to it that helps keep the film engaging even when little happens. Sharrock is careful to make sure the humor stings a bit. Behind every odd moment that elicits a chuckle is a sad truth. In a key scene, two brothers from Africa argue about an episode of Friends. The initial argument is hilarious but as the scene goes on, you realize that this argument is in place of the brothers doing something more productive, moving closer to their dreams. The very state of having to wait has caused them to put things on hold.
Sharrock handles the tone of the film masterfully, able to mine moments for both humor and empathy. His visual style is complex as he stages scenes with great care and attention, pulling from influences as recent as Wes Anderson and as old as Jacques Tati. The film's final act does dip a bit into sentimentality that doesn't feel completely in sync with the rest of the film. However, Limbo is still a very insightful and well-made film that I have been thinking about for days since seeing it. The entire cast is dialed into Sharrock's deadpan style here making the film feel fully realized.