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'Limbo' review: The absurdity of leaving it all behind

Eric Webb
Austin 360

We're in a fertile age of migration stories, for better (they need to be told) or worse (violence, greed and hard hearts have necessitated them at all). Up to the empathetic plate now: "Limbo," a delicate and clever British dramedy out April 30.

Written and directed by Ben Sharrock, the film finds a group of men seeking asylum from their disparate home countries. While they wait in bureaucratic exile — you might even call it limbo — they spend their days on a Scottish isle. Though beautiful in a bleak and loch-bound way, it's also empty in all the ways that count. And for a group of people who've suffered great trauma and now suffer the ache of homesickness, too, that quiet void's awful loud.

At the heart of the group is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a kind but cautious refugee from Syria. He's a musician, and he's carried his grandfather's oud, a string instrument, with him all the way to the island. Significantly more outgoing among the men living together in a threadbare house: Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a jovial and optimistic fella who's seeking asylum from Afghanistan.

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Vikash Bhai, left, plays Farhad and Amir El-Masry stars as Omar in director Ben Sharrock's "Limbo."

While they await the status of their claims, the group contends with the tensions of their situation: the condescending cultural assimilation classes they must attend, the ghosts of the family that didn't make it over, the tedium of watching secondhand "Friends" DVDs.

El-Masry is the focal point of the film, and his performance is stunning. As Omar, he grapples with the guilt of making it out when loved ones did not. He shows the weight in every step Omar takes: to the phone booth to call his parents, through memories of the brother he thinks braver than himself, Nabil (Kais Nashef), and in the sad stroll through the village grocery where they definitely don't carry the sumac he needs to make food that would give just a moment's succor. 

The most literal weight is that big ol' oud, which is never far from Omar's back. Hanging from him, though not from a strap, is a thorny thought: "A musician who doesn’t play music is dead." The pursuit of life echoes through "Limbo," and you'd be an incurious sort indeed not to wonder what animates your own steps.

Vikash Bhai, from left, Kwabena Ansah, Amir El-Masry and Ola Orebiyi play men seeking asylum on a Scottish island in "Limbo."

As Farhad, Bhai gets a plum job here. Aside from the more farcical moments of the well-meaning but tone-deaf Scots in charge of minding the refugees, he's the leading source of smiles in "Limbo." And sure enough, he's also responsible for its most heartbreaking moment in the film's back half, a scene envisioned by Sharrock with such subtlety and graceful intimation and played with such honesty by Bhai that I hope it gets some awards notice.

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"Limbo" might take its purgatory aesthetic into territory too bleak at times — it's hard to avoid the gray feeling that seeps from the frame. It's easy enough to admit that might be the point, too. Visually, Sharrock and cinematographer Nick Cooke still deliver pastoral postcards, including the beautiful opening title screen, where pink letters float in an empty horizon. If the cloud of blah has a major plus, it's in contrast to the gauzy golden flashbacks in Omar's mind.

For the men in Sharrock's film, who are "past their sell-by dates" as one asylum-seeking character sarcastically puts it, an in-between place might not be the promised land. But like other great migration cinema of late — South by Southwest doc "Fruits of Labor," Oscar-nominated "Minari" and aGLIFF standout "Monsoon" come to mind — "Limbo" does a big lift for the viewer when it comes to compassion. Where does the bravery to leave your home come from in a person, and what could possibly dig it up?


Grade: B+

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

Director: Ben Sharrock

Rated: R for language

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Watch: In theaters on April 30