Spartan and wind-whipped and 25 miles from the already far-flung mainland of northern Scotland, the Uist Islands would be a disorienting place for most outsiders to find themselves stranded for an indefinite amount of time — and that’s without the additional, time-stretching uncertainty of a pending application for political asylum. For the Syrian protagonist of “Limbo,” a refugee stationed in a bleak safe house on the island while he awaits the mercy of the British government, it amounts to a kind of physical and spiritual quarantine that could resonate with a broader swath of viewers than it would have done six months ago. Which isn’t to say Scottish director Ben Sharrock’s thoughtful, gentle-natured sophomore film, which dramatizes the refugees’ plight through deadpan comedy rather than issue-movie hand-wringing, lacks ample empathy of its own.
Premiering in Toronto’s Discovery strand, “Limbo” was to have been in the nixed Cannes official selection that was retrospectively announced in the summer. Even if its Croisette presence was theoretical, it’s still a profile-boosting starting point for a small-scale U.K. production from a filmmaker whose 2015 debut “Pikadero” racked up miles on the festival circuit — even landing the top prize at Edinburgh — but was largely shrugged off by distributors. A droll romantic dramedy set in Spain’s Basque region, that film established Sharrock’s international outlook, which is maintained in “Limbo” even as it circles home: His original screenplay draws on time spent living in Syria and filming in Algerian refugee camps.
Some will approach “Limbo” with a measure of justifiable skepticism, as a story of Middle Eastern and African refugees written by a white Scotsman, so the film is wise to take a micro perspective rather than a macro one. Focusing on individual human foibles and yearnings rather than attempting any more universal statement on a global humanitarian crisis, Sharrock also places considerable faith in his excellent lead, British-Egyptian actor Amir El-Masry, to convey unspoken layers of trauma in his character’s psychological makeup.
We’re not told exactly by what harrowing course of events gifted young musician Omar (El-Masry) has washed up in the outer Hebrides with a broken arm, far from his family still in Syria, but his dazed, phlegmatic response to his severe new surroundings tells us what we need to know. He’s one of several single male asylum seekers being held in a desolate, thistly island village while their applications are all too slowly processed. Local distractions are limited to a barren-shelved supermarket, a joyless pub glumly promoting an open mic night, and mile upon mile of stony, sodden coastline and sulky sky, shot by cinematographer Nick Cooke — with a deftly shifting aspect ratio — in a way that implies ominous infinity.
From this thrown-together band of outsiders, Omar bonds most closely with older but less worldly Afghan refugee Farhad (Vikash Bhai), mainly through the latter’s sheer affable persistence. A stubborn optimist whose chief passions in life are Freddie Mercury and rearing chickens, Farhad attempts to get the reluctant young man reengaged with the world, appointing himself his talent agent and nagging him to play his otherwise untouched oud at the open mic night. Farhad’s perplexed but spirited response to his strange new surroundings provide the film with its richest seam of quiet, almost Kaurismäki-like comedy, as he enthusiastically forages for worthless western junk discarded for charity, and grows invested in a donated “Friends” boxset decades after the world stopped debating whether or not Ross and Rachel were on a break.
Less successful are the film’s forays into overt absurdism, mostly in scenes depicting the spaced-out, wildly unhelpful cultural-awareness classes presented for the refugees by eccentric immigrant duo Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen, having a lot of fun) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). Amusing on their own terms, as if lifted from a dislocated Greek weird-wave effort, these digressions never quite gel with the more humane tragicomedy around them, particularly as “Limbo” wanders into progressively more anguished emotional territory.
Any tonal inconsistencies, however, are balanced out by the weight and grace of El-Masry’s performance, flickering with mirth and rage behind tired eyes, and the steady, deliberate composure of Sharrock’s filmmaking, which occasionally lingers on the beauty of such banalities as distorted figures in a mottled glass window. The refugee crisis has been perhaps the most essential, recurring topic of European filmmaking in recent years, addressed in countless documentaries and slightly fewer fiction features with varying degrees of imagination and integrity: Amid this glut, “Limbo” sincerely and intelligently finds its own way.