Review: Limbo Spins the Migrant Crisis into a Deadpan, Life-Affirming Satire

Throughout its running time, Ben Sharrock’s film seesaws between the haunting and the irritating.

Photo: Focus Features

Ben Sharrock’s Limbo spins the migrant crisis into the sort of absurdist, life-affirming boutique dramedy that used to be called “quirky” and was once regularly released by studios like Miramax and Fox Searchlight Pictures. There’s a hint of blasphemy to treating such material lightly, and this suggestion imbues the film’s early stretches with a lively tartness. Sharrock persuasively intimates that to only see refugees in the context of despair and chaos and verité news footage is to dehumanize them, for defining them only by their suffering. In Limbo, refugees are allowed to be as ordinary as anyone else, with regular dreams, disappointments, and hang-ups. They’re also, unfortunately, allowed to be precious.

Limbo is set on a fictional Scottish island, where refugees are awaiting grants of asylum. Considering the various alternatives, they have what appears to be a decent setup, as the island is the sort of beautiful haven that tourists would flock to see. Sharrock uses this island’s beauty as a source of pungent visual irony, contrasting the locale with the stiff body language of his characters, who are positioned in symmetrical frames that their emphasize isolation and emotional paralysis. In other words, Sharrock has studied the compositional strategies of Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki, and Wes Anderson, and he proves to be an adept student. Certain visual flourishes are hauntingly inexplicable—such as a telephone booth in the middle of the countryside to which the refugees must go to speak to their families—while others are irritatingly cute, such as a shot of a man driving a bright-red truck that matches his coat.

Limbo seesaws between the haunting and the irritating. One of its best and most suggestive jokes concerns a series of classes that teach the refugees how to adjust to English-speaking Western culture. Running underneath these broad bits, concerning courtship rituals, job interviews, and the like is an awareness of how quickly platitudes can inadvertently reveal the unimaginable pain that refugees have experienced. When the class is asked to fashion sentences opening with “I used to,” a man says that he used to have “a beautiful house before it was blown up by coalition forces” with a casualness that’s both hilarious (for puncturing the patness of the exercise) and devastating. When a shopkeeper (Sanjeev Kohli) instructs the film’s Syrian protagonist, Omar (Amir El-Masry), to consult a list of banned racial slurs pinned to a wall, he accidentally reads a sign warning people not to urinate in the frozen section.

Such comic punchlines to scenes give Limbo a cuckoo urgency, though other jokes are more limited and derivative. Omar’s friend, Farhad (Vikash Bhai), has an arrestingly sad and soft face, though Sharrock condescends to him with cartoonish props and clothes. (The film’s low point is a bit with a chicken that could’ve come out of Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite.)

Limbo grows at once more conventional and ambitious as it proceeds. Omar’s struggle to play his grandfather’s oub again, in the wake of recovering from a broken arm that he presumably incurred during his journey to Scotland, serves as a routine metaphor for resilience and rebirth. The film’s comedic tone burns away as Omar wanders through hallucinatory snowstorms to have an imagined conversation with his estranged brother, Nabil (Kais Nashif), who remained in Syria to fight in the war. Omar’s feelings of survivor’s guilt and inadequacy in relation to Nabil are moving, as Limbo grapples with emotions that aren’t generally discussed in reference to the migrant crisis. But the explicitness of this material is also disappointing, for obviously underscoring and resolving agonies that were fiercely subsumed into the narrative as subtext. A comedy about the migrant crisis is more daring than a coming-of-age story, and Limbo, wanting it both ways, dilutes its best instincts with sops to formula.

 Cast: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Grace Chilton, Kenneth Collard, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Cameron Fulton, Silvie Furneaux, Sanjeev Kohli, Raymond Mearns, Kais Nashif, Ola Orebiyi  Director: Ben Sharrock  Screenwriter: Ben Sharrock  Distributor: Focus Features  Running Time: 103 min  Rating: R  Year: 2020

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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