Aisha movie review: Letitia Wright’s portrait of everyday heroism is stunning in this refugee drama

Letitia Wright is so famous right now, that if she appeared in an ad for haemorrhoid cream it would get a gazillion views. She knows the world’s watching. Here’s what she wants you to see.

In April of last year, Wright took a break from filming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to appear in this Irish drama about a young asylum seeker. Like Wright’s MCU character Shuri, Aisha Osagie is a brave and formidably smart African woman. Like Shuri, Aisha has recently lost a beloved brother and is the apple of her mother’s eye. Unlike Shuri, Aisha is a stranger to high-tech gadgets and globe-trotting missions. Stuck in a Dublin hostel for over a year, Aisha faces an uphill struggle simply to microwave her lunch.

If you think that sounds mundane, you’re wrong. Aisha is caught up in Ireland’s notorious direct provision system (a system for asylum seeker accommodation that is essentially a rung of hell, overseen by the government and private companies out to make a profit), but she won’t take abuse lying down.

Her boldest acts come early on, before we realise what’s at stake. Eventually, though, we realise her loyalty to other asylum seekers has put her own application for “international protection” at risk. She’s polite to those in authority, but that’s not enough for the manager of the hostel, Francis (Stuart Graham; icily patrician), who sees her quiet confidence as a threat and labels her insubordinate.

Josh O’Connor with Letitia Wright (Sky UK/ Cornerstone 2021)
Josh O’Connor with Letitia Wright (Sky UK/ Cornerstone 2021)

Wright’s portrait of everyday heroism is stunning. It won’t earn her a Best Actress Oscar (films this low-budget don’t get noticed by the Academy). But that doesn’t make her work any less impressive.

Note the passionate intensity with which Aisha tells a friendly worker, at the hostel, “I appreciate you”; and the desperately conscientious way in which she talks to her vulnerable mother (in hiding, in Lagos). And the mischief in her face, as she talks about life in Nigeria, with the hostel’s crestfallen security guard, Conor (The Crown’s Josh O’Connor).

In case you’re wondering, O’Connor’s Dublin accent and shambolic mien are spot on (it’s like the English actor has been watching Barry Keoghan movies on loop). In a series of deft and lovely scenes, Conor and Aisha bond. After discovering something horrible about Conor’s past, Aisha seeks him out, in his bleak and tiny work booth. It’s incredibly romantic, the way his honesty makes it possible for her to open up. And it’s incredibly real, that his adoration can’t magic away her trauma.

Irish director-writer Frank Berry avoids prurient flashbacks. In fact, there are no flashbacks at all. The film’s central idea is that, at the very moment that refugees should be recovering from abuse, they’re forced to relive it. Aisha’s solicitor tells her, before she sees the panel who will green light or reject her application, “try and put them in the room.” Cinema audiences, too, can be greedy for gruesome details, not to mention white saviours. Aisha swerves such tropes.

If the film’s pacing isn’t perfect, its timing is impeccable. Despite being constantly in the news, refugees remain unseen. Should young Black Panther fans track this down, they’ll be thrown for a loop.

94mins, cert 12A

In cinemas and on Sky Cinema from Thursday