Although set in the Republic of Ireland, this slight but surprisingly powerful film will hit a raw nerve in countries all over Europe in the wake of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. More specifically, it will likely have an impact on the U.K. arthouse circuit, after the British government’s recent, controversial decision to launder asylum-seekers via a scheme deporting them to Rwanda for processing.
Why its producers chose Tribeca as a launchpad, then, is a bit of mystery, and if it’s down to star power, any stray Marvel fans drawn by Letitia Wright’s MCU pedigree certainly won’t be in for a rollercoaster thrill-ride.
That said, anyone attuned to its creative team’s integrity and the film’s careful, considered tempo will likely be sympathetic to its concerns.
Wright, deceptively superb in an unshowy, understated way, stars as Aisha Osagie, a young Nigerian woman in her 20s living in a hostel in Ireland. While waiting to be granted leave to remain, Aisha has favored status that gives her permission to work as a hairdresser’s assistant, and allows her to send money back to her mother.
Things seem to take a turn for the brighter when Aisha is befriended by affable security guard Conor Healy (Josh O’Connor), who breaks company rules to spend time with Aisha and will try, in a subtly non-intrusive fashion, to find out what happened to her and her family, and why she feels her life would be in danger if she were to return to Nigeria.
However, after a run-in with the hostel’s owner, Aisha is asked to leave, and is relocated to a rural caravan park, far from her workplace and her lawyer, where she must wait until her interview with the immigration authorities finally comes around. Conor, who has fallen for her, watches all this from a bemused distance.
The level of care and detail, sometimes at the expense of story, give Frank Berry’s film an air of authenticity that, while a little earnest, does give him a bit of license to depart from the offbeat love story that other directors might have pursued. O’Connor, anointed an unlikely heartthrob by Francis Lee in his cult gay love story God’s Own Country (2017), is a very inspired piece of casting, playing Conor as an artless ex-junkie jailbird, down-low but with a quietly purring motor.
His performance is probably the dictionary definition of generous, giving Wright a lot of much-needed space so that when she finally breaks her silence, it doesn’t feel that her family tragedy is just a big dramatic reveal—asked by the authorities to tell them her story, Aisha snaps, “It is not a story”.
In terms of precedent, Aisha covers some of the same ground covered by Ben Sharrock’s excellent 2021 film Limbo, which offered a more existential—and surprisingly humorous—take on the depressing purgatory that refugees find themselves in. There’s also a lot of Ken Loach-style didacticism about red tape and bureaucracy, although, thankfully, it’s never quite as on-the-nose as the director’s Cannes hit I, Daniel Blake.
Aisha sits somewhere in between, taking a small, personal story and using it as a lightning rod. The result is an unexpectedly effective piece of talking-point cinema; Aisha’s case is not as cut-and-dried as you might think it is, and the big takeaway from Berry’s film is about the wider question of international law and responsibility, not just talking easy shots at the flawed solutions that governments set in place. It’s a slow burn, and while it never quite ignites, Aisha leaves a surprisingly memorable afterglow.