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Aisha review – Letitia Wright shines in heartfelt asylum-seeker drama

A Nigerian refugee held in a Dublin detention centre develops an emotional connection with an Irish security guard, played by Josh O’Connor

Growing tenderness … Josh O’Connor and Letitia Wright in Aisha. Photograph: Sky UK/Bernard Walsh/Cornerstone 2021

This intense and heartfelt drama from Irish writer-director Frank Berry addresses a growing concern in Ireland: that a nation once known for its talented and hard-working emigrants is becoming ironically heartless towards its own applicants for asylum (although Ireland hasn’t yet embraced Theresa May’s “hostile environment” formula).

Letitia Wright gives a performance of intense focus, controlled anger and dignity as Aisha, a Nigerian refugee being held in a Dublin detention centre, unable to return because her father and brothers were murdered by gangsters; she is trying to establish her own leave to remain and then bring over her elderly, ailing mother who is still in danger. Aisha is treated like a cross between a prisoner and a difficult boarding school pupil by the prickly official staff with whom she is icily resentful in return. But she finds a miraculous connection with a new security guard there: Conor, a guy with vulnerabilities of his own – and it’s a lovely, gentle performance from Josh O’Connor with whom Wright finds a very emotional rapport.

Wright shows how Aisha is closed, wary, deeply reluctant to open up to anyone in power, still less a security guard, but Conor is clearly not like them. Their growing tenderness is always liable to be crushed by Aisha’s situation: Aisha (who is herself separated from an abusive husband) perhaps fears getting involved with a guy who might never rid himself of the suspicion that she simply needs him to stay in the country; Aisha, for her part, might never rid herself of the thought that she is an object of pity and an obvious emotional target for a very lonely person – although Conor is transparently decent.

The film shows us that in addition to all this, Aisha faces a nightmare of bureaucracy: however well she performs in front of interview panels she is always liable to be rejected with no reasons given. It’s an absorbing drama given sympathy and life by two very high-calibre performers.

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