Omar is a Syrian refugee who maintains a poker face even as he gives us a glimpse of the full emotional range of the “displaced person experience.” He is sad, deflated, guilt-ridden and powerless. Surely “hopeful” figured in there at some point.
But when you’re stuck on a remote Scottish island that might as well be named “Purgatory,” “Limbo” is about as upbeat as his situation gets.
Writer-director Ben Sharrock’s debut feature has all the ingredients to turn into a twee take on “fish out of water” shoved where, as the vulgar insult goes, “the sun don’t shine.” But this wistful, deadpan tale never quite goes there, which seems apt, given the subject matter.
They are from Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, and they’ve temporarily raised this dying, isolated village’s population “by 25 percent,” the locals insist. But for all the quirky assimilation classes presided over by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), amusingly-mimed examples of how to avoid breaking decorum while dancing, when the phrase “I used to” comes in handy, we see in no uncertain terms that these single men are in utter despair.
Omar (Amir El-Masry) and his flatmates, Farhad from Afghanistan (Vikash Bhai) and Sudanese brothers Waseef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), have been tossed into a snowy, overcast place where English is its subtitle-challenging worst. Wasef figures its for a reason.
They’re trying “to break us, to get us to volunteer to go home.”
Omar has had his arm in a cast since he’s been here, trudging from classes to the store to the single pay phone on a windswept hillside to call his parents, who made it only as far as Istanbul.
We learn from his calls to his mother that his estranged brother is still in Syria, fighting for, we presume, the non-Assad side. From his father, who wonders why the kid isn’t making cash we learn Omar’s “no work permit” status, and figure out the instrument Omar takes with him everywhere, even if he can’t play it with a bum arm.
“People don’t care about the oud here,” the son sighs to his father.
Farhad has been here the longest, and cynical Wasef explains that “Afghans” were once the flavor of the month, in the world’s spotlight. Then it was the Sudanese. It’s been Syrians for a while, but it’s entirely possible Omar missed the window of when we all were paying attention to Syria.
Sure, there’s a “Refugees Welcome” sign on the community center. Nobody is what you’d call hostile. But Omar is hassled by boorish rural teens doing donuts on the sand flats at low tide and want to know if he’s in Al Qaida. Then there’s the tactless dad who blurts out “Bet ye never thought ye’d end up HERE, didya laddie?” in front of his daughter in the thickest burr on the island.
Sharrock packs the front and the back of the frame in most scenes, stressing the stark scenery and odd locals. Whatever Omar is stoically not reacting to in the foreground, there’s sure to be a kid on a distant trampoline as the snow gently settles around outsiders who aren’t exactly used to this sort of damp cold.
The filmmaker gives us an understated and illuminating microcosm of the displaced person experience — a town with a lone industry, a fish-packing plant, which can hire permitted “economic refugees” but not those fleeing death back home and kept in “limbo” here, and lets us feel the comic resentment some of Omar’s flatmates feel about this.
Omar? He keeps those feelings to himself, makes promises to his family he can’t keep and makes us wonder what he’s carrying with him that weighs so heavily on his heart. His lack of emotions make us wonder if he even wants or is anyone worthy of that coveted “asylum” in the West.
El-Masry, who features in TV’s “Jack Ryan” action spy series playing guess-what, makes a somewhat colorless reactor to all that’s going on around him. He learns the slur “Paki” from the more tactless than hateful local, and learns even quicker that it’s not what you say to the second generation Sikh who runs the ill-equipped market. If there are laughs in any situation, it’s the other character who provides them.
Happy endings and tragedies, a crisis of conscience and a chicken all play into this story of lonely strangers thrown together at a latitude that will do nothing to ease their isolation. Several situations tickle, some sadden and a lone moment of magical realism lays it all out there, what people fleeing conflict are allowed to/forced to feel guilty about as they seek a better life than “home,” for all its pull, provided.
MPA Rating: R for language (profanity)
Cast: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard and Sidse Babett Knudsen
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ben Sharrock. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:44