Letitia Wright is on a bit of a roll. Her performance as Shuri in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has been critically acclaimed and the film has broken several box office records, including best ever opening for a November film.
To contrast her action-packed turn in Wakanda Forever comes Aisha, a quiet little drama about a Nigerian refugee. Aisha (Wright) is waiting to hear news about her asylum application. The refugee accommodation is plain and Aisha asks a kindly employee to heat up her halal meal for her although it’s not technically allowed.
She strikes up a friendship with former prisoner, Conor who has just taken a job at her accommodation, working nights. Conor is a lovely lad, a little shy and often avoids eye contact but something about Aisha fascinates him and the feeling is reciprocated.
Much of the film follows Aisha’s seemingly endless fight with bureaucracy. It’s not enough to tell the officials that she has nowhere to return to and her life would be in danger if she were to return to Nigeria. No, she’s instructed to describe her experiences in detail, to really sell her experience.
And that she does. In a heart-wrenching performance that never turns melodramatic, Wright carefully lets us in on Aisha’s frustrations. What could have been a scandalous, loud film turns out to be a quiet meditation of justice and the very core of humanity.
Wright has already established herself an extraordinary performer. She is clearly an actress with great instincts and an intuitive sense of what makes a compelling performance. For most of the film, Aisha is kind and quiet, but in a devastating scene, she loses her composure.
Director Frank Berry skilfully observes, but never forces the camera to intrude. Berry constructs a believable portrait of the reality of asylum seekers. Again, this could have been a film that leaned heavily into the more shocking elements of the story and exploited the real human beings right in the centre of it.
Don’t get me wrong, Aisha is in no way a sanitised look at the everyday life of asylum seekers. Aisha’s friendship with Conor grows from connection to friendship to companionship, with hints of romance. Berry weaves it into the narrative while also keeping his gaze directly at how unjust and overwhelmed the system is.
Berry’s direction is subtle and Aisha is a very naturalistic film. Josh O’Connor’s quiet performance beautifully supports the weight of Wright’s acting. The two have instant, gentle chemistry. It’s almost as if Conor recognises another kind, suffering soul in Aisha and the two lean on each other in order to heal.
It’s a shame Aisha will only ever be seen on smaller screens, but its power is undeniable. This is a story of resilience and survival and while it occasionally dips into being a little too miserable, Berry’s film is potent and engaging.
Aisha is available on Sky Cinema now.