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Review: ‘Limbo’ is an immigrant story destined to outlive its time

A young man wearing a pink cast sits between two girls in the backseat of a car.
Amir El-Masry, center, in the movie “Limbo.”
(Focus Features)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Improbably reassuring of laughter’s healing properties, “Limbo,” the resplendent second feature-length brainchild from writer-director Ben Sharrock, is an immensely funny and profound tragicomedy centered on a group of refugees stuck on a barren Scottish island awaiting decisions on their asylum requests.

Sporting a pink cast on his immobilized right hand, Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian musician famous back home for playing the oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument, is a recent arrival. Calls made from a phone booth to his relocated parents in Istanbul reveal a schism with his older brother Nabil, who stayed back to fight for the homeland.

Omar drags the large oud case, both a link to his loved ones and a cross weighing him down, wherever he goes. With his hand, and spirits, out of commission to practice, Omar ponders his father’s words: “A musician who doesn’t play is dead.”

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Prohibited from working, he passes the time befriending Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a kindhearted Afghan Freddie Mercury lookalike who appoints himself Omar’s agent and manager. Two African brothers, fond of watching and arguing over the ’90s sitcom “Friends,” complete the eclectic housemate foursome at the government-provided temporary lodging.

Akin in tone to the deadpan hilarity of American indies such as “The Station Agent” or Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, the film also boasts mild undertones reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s chuckle-inducing darkness. Sharrock’s balance of tone is immaculate — and charming without downplaying the characters’ precarious circumstances.

That he channels empathic concern for those fleeing war and economic deprivation, as well as heartfelt drama and subdued lyricism into a singular film amounts to a stroke of storytelling genius.

Like its bureaucratically embattled and often invisible heroes, the narrative occupies a liminal space somewhere between the downbeat reality of displacement, racism and Islamophobia, and mournful dreamlike sequences. The director maximizes the inherently surreal elements of this purgatory at the intersection of safety in Europe and the looming threat of deportation.

A marvelously guarded El-Masry, an Egyptian-born actor seen in “The Rise of Skywalker,” maintains a reserved, almost emotionless composure that only breaks when Bhai’s matter-of-fact earnestness makes him smile. Understandably dejected, El-Masry’s Omar traverses guilt and self-doubt to regain appreciation for his skill, a valuable method to preserve his people’s culture. Only then can he enjoy small doses of comfort, like that in a familiar spice.

Within the boxy aspect ratio, cinematographer Nick Cooke’s exact compositions illustrate the story’s marked contrasts between a sense of community, found in shared hardship, and the soul-crushing isolation of individual experience. Frames crowded with the four men expectantly waiting for the mail differ sharply from those containing sparse winter vistas. There’s a purposeful sense of place.

Humor in “Limbo” springs from a phenomenal screenplay that peddles neither condescending compassion nor misery exploitation. The gags instead target the locals, most well-intentioned but ignorant. Scenes during a cultural awareness course to encourage assimilation reveal more about the reluctant hosts’ xenophobic preconceptions than the new arrivals’ perceived foreignness.

Sharrock writes intricately, filing the crevices of his premise with intimate details, anecdotes, and instances of poetic yearning, all of which configure the essence of these characters adrift in the ocean of the West’s indifference. An underlying bittersweet sentiment prevails up to the movie’s appropriately muted climax, which dispenses with an idealized future or a neatly wrapped entrance into the promised land for Omar.

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An offbeat and life-affirming triumph, “Limbo” is the kind of original work of art that moves the needle on an issue by delving into the human factor rather than hanging out on the impersonal surface. A movie born of our times but destined to outlive them, it deserves to cross the threshold from festival darling to audience favorite.

‘Limbo’

In English and Arabic with English subtitles

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: Starts April 30 in general release where theaters are open


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