Review: Refugees seek asylum in overly quirky 'Limbo'

Writer-director Ben Sharrock colors his comic-drama in shades of twee

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A group of Syrian refugees are holed up on a remote Scottish island waiting for asylum in "Limbo," a compassionate story of patience and resilience that unfolds, for some reason, as a stylistic cousin to "Napoleon Dynamite."  

Writer-director Ben Sharrock poses his characters like figures in a diorama, framing shots like offbeat, deadpan still photos. Occasionally a figure will run across the frame, from one end to the other, while the lens stays put. The camera rarely moves, save for the occasional swivel from right to left. Characters stare back at the screen like they're trying to burn a hole through it. 

Amir El-Masry, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah and Vikash Bhai in "Limbo."

The twee, Wes Anderson-like approach paints its subject with a certain amount of detached irreverence. Which is a unique approach to a difficult subject, but it renders "Limbo" overly precious and robs it of some of its emotional resonance. 

But not all of it. It's a testament to Sharrock's empathy as a filmmaker that the style doesn't totally overwhelm the story. But it certainly rocks the boat. 

Amir El-Masry is Omar, who arrives on the Scottish isle and awaits his fate. He's joined by a handful of others in similar situations, including Farhad (Vikash Bhai), and they attend awkward cultural training courses. Omar phones home to his mother, from the one phone booth on the island, who gives him updates on his brother. He carries his grandfather's oud with him wherever he goes but refuses to play it. 

Omar is carrying a lot on his shoulders and El-Masry's performance is a study in slow release. The climax of the film acts as an emotional triumph. Unfortunately, much of its victory is in spite of itself.




Rated R: for language

Running time: 104 minutes

In theaters