Thursday 29 December 2022

On demand: "Aisha"

Set against the backdrop of the hostile environment our leaders have created for migrants, Frank Berry's Aisha is a tender drama with two emergent local stars in the lead roles. Letitia Wright plays the eponymous heroine, a Nigerian woman who - as the film opens - has been holed up in a Dublin processing centre for the best part of a year, awaiting official clearance. As last year's breakout hit Limbo floated, the migrant experience now involves more waiting than moving: for the post bringing government communiques, for the buses carrying these new arrivals to the jobs they're desperate to get on with, for access to the computers that allow them to maintain some link with the folks back home. It's wearying, this waiting in place, but it's better than the alternative, represented here whenever hired security goons barge into the migrants' chambers to remove and relocate those who - for whatever reason - have failed to appear in the allotted place at the allotted time. There's a new guy working nights, however, one who exhibits no particular desire to strongarm anybody; for Conor, this is just a job like any job, and the centre's residents are people like any other people. He's played by Josh O'Connor of God's Own Country and The Crown, who makes him softly spoken, amenable, and a little bit sleepy, as if he'd only just woken up, or needs his bed. (Anyone who has themselves worked nights will know exactly how he feels.) Yet despite the comparative freedoms Aisha and Conor enjoy - the conversations they strike up on the bus, like they were any other commuters - and despite their growing closeness, they are still prisoner and captor. Now we're waiting, for the one scene that bears out the sorry messaging underpinning so much modern policymaking: that migrants have no friends, no business, and can expect no favours here. 

To its considerable credit, Berry's film is never that predictable. It's been constructed around certain stumbling blocks, yes, but it also knows that the deft deployment of actors, and a close attention to individual moments in a story arc, can help an audience forget (or merely get us around) the inevitable. For starters, this role is far more encompassing role than Wright's part in the recent Black Panther sequel, where she appeared weighed down by a grief both felt and performed. Here, she gets to flash a smile alongside flickers of mischief, a withering wit and good citizenship. (She has some nicely observed, cautious interactions with the clientele at the salon where Aisha works.) The central relationship holds the promise of a new start within it - for the security guard, too, equally trying to put the past behind him, sketched in unfussily by Berry and O'Connor. But we're also forever aware of Aisha's internal hurt: the doubts and fears that flood her head whenever the lights go out, the impermanency knocked into her with every white slip denying her leave to remain. (One question the film raises: how to envision a future for yourself when the system, and the politicians working its levers, simply won't allow it.) Wright gives us some of the year's best jaw acting - there's a lot that requires clenching, bad news that needs swallowing down - and also some idea of why this adaptable character has had to adapt: because she keeps being bounced from place to place, sometimes to places where she can't work and has no allies. Aisha is less guessable than it first appears, partly because its heroine is less guessable than she first appears; there are surprises as this tightly guarded soul offers up some memory of what she's had to leave behind on her travels. Steered both by the performers and Berry's quietly assured, nimble direction, it's a rare movie that gets more complicated and involving as it goes along, detaching itself from the newly established migrant-movie template and moving closer to the contours of credibly circumscribed life. Landing amid the latest wave of unfounded tabloid rabblerousing about overseas visitors, good work like this can only count double.

Aisha is now streaming via Now TV.

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