Dirty Pretty Things Movie Review

The title of Stephen Frears' new film Dirty Pretty Things revels in contradiction. The same might be said of the film itself, which is part melodrama, part social critique, and part black comedy all rolled into one delectably grimy treat. It's a thriller that only nominally wants to thrill, and a critique of modern society's disregard for the illegal immigrant class that only sporadically bothers to drum up the audience's indignation over its characters' plight. Willfully unwilling to be pigeonholed, the film embraces its various temperaments with a poise imparted by a director whose steady hand never allows the unconventional material to falter. That the lurching tone of the film coalesces into a satisfyingly original narrative at all speaks to Frears' keen sense of the delicate balance between sentimentality and somberness.

Okwe (newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor) works as a cab driver by day and a hotel desk clerk by night, regularly chewing addictive plant leaves to keep himself from dozing off. An illegal immigrant and former doctor who's arrived in London to flee political forces who sought his arrest in Nigeria, Okwe now resides on the couch of fellow hotel employee Senay (Amelie's Audrey Tautou), a Turkish maid whose legal immigrant status, in a puzzling twist that's never fully explained, prohibits her from being employed. The two social outcasts keep their friendship hidden from their fellow coworkers, each interested in blending into the environment like a chameleon changing spots to elude predators. In a city that eagerly makes use of immigrant labor, Okwe and Senay are the tattered fringe of society, forced to endure humiliation and unable to fight back for fear that their presence might be detected by the immigration police who constantly scour the city's underbelly. What's not mentioned, however, is that since Okwe is an illegal immigrant, he doesn't have any right being in London, and this near-sighted portrayal of his situation - one can assume that his life in London, no matter how difficult and unpleasant, is better than the life in Nigeria that he fled, although the film glosses over this fact - saps some of our sympathy for him.

The hidden cannot forever remain unseen, and Okwe's discovery of a human heart in a hotel room toilet leads to the unearthing of a shadowy black market for body parts - their slimy hotel boss Juan (Sergi López), aptly nicknamed "Sneaky," nourishes his wallet's appetite by blackmailing immigrants into giving up their kidneys in exchange for fake passports. Okwe is understandably horrified by this monstrous industry, but the film claims that selling part of one's self for the chance at freedom and a new life is far from uncommon; even Senay herself, a Muslim who clings to her virginity, is forced to sexually satisfy her employers if she doesn't want to be reported to the authorities. When Okwe infiltrates a local hospital with the help of a friendly crematorium porter, the fake ID he's given looks nothing like him, to which the porter replies: "Black is black." According to the film, most of the city views those like Okwe as interchangeable cattle, primarily useful as spare parts for the capitalist machine.

Dirty Pretty Things is, at its core, a quest for home, for inclusion, and the crazed, half-mad desperation of Okwe and Senay is rooted in the realization that life affords them only three options: perpetual subjugation, death, or escape. Fortunately, Frears has chosen his cast wisely. Native Frenchwoman Tautou is asked to not only speak English but also affect a Turkish accent, and yet the passion and anxiety seen swimming in her saucer-shaped eyes allows us immediate access into Senay's conflicted heart (her dreams center around the white police horses found in New York City). Her admirable performance, a study in quietly concealed disintegration, makes the actress' minor stumbles with the language easily forgivable.

Whereas Tautou infuses Senay with vulnerability and naiveté, her co-star Ejiofor, embodying a man whose shady past cloaks him in mystery, brings a barely suppressed wildness to Okwe. Little by little, Ejiofor doles out small hints regarding Okwe's motivations, and it's this actorly patience that compels us to remain rooted in the character's dilemma. Even during scenes in which the opportunity for personal revelation is present - the film's primary shortcoming being a schematic script by Steve Knight that programs key moments a bit too conveniently - the actor never provides us with more insight into Okwe than is necessary at the given moment.

This is also true of Frears, whose sturdy professionalism lends the film a swagger that engenders our confidence in this tale's mixture of romance (between Senay and Okwe), suspense (the duo's revenge scheme), and humor (most memorably found in Okwe's treatment of the cab company boss, and later his friends, for the clap). Despite a story that sometimes teeters unsteadily on the precipice between artfulness and ludicrousness, Frears rarely missteps. Things conclude in an unrealistically neat fashion - why would someone who fled a country under the threat of death think they could suddenly return to it? - but given that Dirty Pretty Things is ultimately characterized by contradictions, it might be a fittingly ironic end to this entertainingly unruly film.

Frears offers a commentary track on the Dirty DVD.

Looks pretty dirty.


Dirty Pretty Things Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2003


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