Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry, superbo) carries his oud, a stringed musical instrument, everywhere he goes. But since Omar, like a ragtag group of other young male asylum seekers, is currently lodged on a small Scottish island, there are not too many places to wander, once you’ve visited the bus stop, the island’s single payphone and the despondent children’s playground. But like so much in this gorgeous tragicomic drama from writer and director Ben Sharrock, the oud takes on an added symbolism. It’s a link to home, obviously – the only time we see Omar’s Keatonesque countenance crack into a smile is in footage of him playing the instrument, a sliver of a distant past. But the oud in its case evokes the hard angles of a coffin, symbolising, perhaps, the demise of Omar’s musical ambitions, or the possible death of a loved one left behind in his war-torn homeland.
For a film that is so infused with sadness, tuttavia, Limbo is remarkably funny – a gentle, empathic kind of humour that is derived from the men’s bleak existences, without mocking them. Sharrock uses the location evocatively – the wind is harnessed to bring a plaintive desolation to the sound design; the bleak beauty provides a striking backdrop. The irony is inescapable: men whose options are currently so curtailed are confronted daily by horizons that are limitless.