Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Letitia Wright in Aisha
"Wright’s performance is among the very best of the year to date." | Photo: Pat Redmond

Right at the beginning of Frank Berry’s film, a dance is interrupted. Aisha (Letitia Wright) protests that the room was booked in advance. It needs to be used by staff, she is told. Everyone has to go. This rather abrupt event may seem like an odd choice of opening, but it sets the scene perfectly for what is to come. Exposure to petty tyranny, the inability to plan, life’s few sweet moments disrupted.

Aisha is living in an asylum seekers’ centre in Ireland. “This is not a prison,” she will point out later on, only to be told “You keep that up and see where it gets you.” She is labelled a troublemaker because in spite of it all, she persists in behaving like a human being.

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Born in Nigeria, Aisha has been in Ireland for just over a year. She desperately misses her mother, who is in hiding in Lagos, and with whom she hopes to be reunited if her case is successful. Following the murder of her father and brother over a debt, both women are in fear for their lives, but when you’re fleeing that kind of violence, you don’t stop to think about how you will prove it. It becomes obvious, early on, that her lawyer isn’t holding out much hope. The response of the ministry is like to depend on how well she can emotionally communicate her experiences to them – experiences she never wants to have to revisit, but which she is not being allowed to move on from.

In the meantime, small cruelties are everywhere. A jobsworth official won’t give her her mail until she fetches her ID, though he knows full well who she is. Others won’t let her use the microwave for two minutes to heat food she’s bought. She has a job that she likes and she doesn’t want to be dependent on the state, but she’s only allowed to work for a few hours a week. Her only source of emotional support is her fellow asylum seekers, who can be snatched away at a moment’s notice, dispatched to unknown, potentially awful fates.

As we follow Aisha through a series of events over which she has little control, we also see her forming a bond with a security guard, Conor (Josh O’Connor), who has been told not to talk to any of his charges but seems unable to witness all these things and do nothing. Perhaps this stems from something in his past; perhaps he too is simply managing, against the odds, to hold onto his humanity. This isn’t a passionate romance of the conventional kind. It’s a developing connection between two damaged people, a fragile thing, and all the more beautiful for it. It’s also something which Aisha knows she can’t afford to invest too much in.

Both leads are impressive. Wright’s performance is among the very best of the year to date. It’s so delicately constructed, so carefully layered that it may sadly go under the radar of most awards voters, but it really does deserve that level of attention. Between this and Brendan Rehill’s immersive sound design, the film exerts a powerful grip. Its focus on small, relatable incidents allows it to cut through in a way that, for many people, more extreme accounts of suffering will not.

Berry makes very effective use of an intentionally disjointed structure. Though Aisha herself changes and develops over the course of it, her predicament is such that that development has nowhere to go. The uncertainty is the point. Caught between an unbearable past and an unknowable future, she exists like an animal, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, at the mercy of a neverending present moment, an inescapable now.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2024
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A young Nigerian woman seeking asylum in Ireland flounders in a maze of social services and bureaucracy as her situation becomes increasingly dire.

Director: Frank Berry

Writer: Frank Berry

Starring: Letitia Wright, Josh O'Connor, Abdul Alshareef, Ruth McCabe, Joanne Crawford, Emmanuel Okoye, Geraldine McAlinden, Florence Adebambo, Bernadette Carty, Corey Millar, Christopher Livingstone, Brian Manning, Antionette Doyle, Paul Murphy

Year: 2022

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: Ireland

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