Ben Sharrock’s sophmore film Limbo asks us to invest in the individuals as he tackles the complex life of refugees and asylum seekers.

It’s an unforgiving landscape – flat, never- ending, treeless and blasted by a relentless wind – it’s no post-apocalyptic setting. It is one where aliens live, though – or that’s how it feels to the refugees and asylum seekers in Ben Sharrock’s Limbo.

All single men, all cast adrift from homelands such as Syria and Afghanistan, they’ve been sent to this no-man’s land Scottish island while they wait on a future that’s out of their hands; relocated in grim hostels, given a minimal allowance and barred from any paid work. Among them is Omar (Amir El-Masry), who regularly joins the queue for the Local Hero-esque solitary phone box to call his parents in Turkey, only to hide from them the empty reality of his life – the hostile locals, the humiliating classes designed to teach him about British life, and his guilt at abandoning his identity and culture. All he has left is the case for his oud (a stringed instrument), which he carries round with him like – in the words of his friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai) – ‘a coffin for his soul’.

Whether it’s the local people or Omar and his friends who are the aliens in this unforgiving setting depends on your point of view. But, despite the circumstances, this film is far from being a tale of unrelenting misery. Sophomore director Sharrock, who also wrote the script, elegantly treads the tightrope between heart-rending tragedy and flickering glimmers of hope with wit, compassion and a deadpan style which is surprisingly seductive. Moments of unexpected humanity, especially courtesy of a gruff supermarket owner, are straight faced and all the more effective for it.

El-Masry anchors it all with a mature, sensitive performance as Omar, longing for all the small details of his former life but knowing the chances of ever going back – or finding a new home in the UK – are dwindling before his eyes. That he conveys all this with minimal dialogue, allowing the camera to reveal his feelings, his pain and his inherent warmth, makes his portrayal all the more remarkable.

Limbo takes a contemporary issue and puts it under a subtle microscope, encouraging us to invest in the individuals, and care about the bigger issues as a result. Its intricate blend of the sad, the droll and the gloriously ridiculous shows how an unwelcoming land isn’t as cold as it seems.

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