Dirty Pretty Things

September, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Stephen Frears

Starring:Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Israel Aduramo, Sergi López, Benedict Wong, and Audrey Tautou

At first glance, purloined body parts don't lend themselves to social commentary, yet British director Stephen Frears, (who works on both sides of the Atlantic with equal success) manages to toss both those ingredients into this dramatic stew along with some bawdy good humor and one of the most venal movie villains to come along in years--so it's hard not to like this acutely observed study of illegal immigrants in London and the exploitation which comprises so much of their lives. If their plight is presented in shades a bit too one-sided to generate a great film, Frears nevertheless delivers a highly interesting one; the creator of My Beautiful Launderette and High Fidelity may not be operating at that lofty level here, but the results are certainly worth a couple of hours in the dark.

The action here takes places in and around a second-rate London hotel staffed by a crew that would make the U.N. proud; chambermaids from a half-dozen countries, a sleazy manager far from the country of his birth, a Russian doorman and Okwe, the Nigerian night porter who acts on a hooker's tip and makes a grizzly discovery in one of the hotel’s rooms which sets the plot in motion. Okwe, (played with quietly commanding presence by English-born actor Chiwetel Ejofor) is actually a physician who was forced to leave his homeland in order to avoid prosecution for a crime the circumstances of which are revealed only as he unravels the mystery behind the gruesome discovery made in that unoccupied bedroom. But to accomplish this task, Okwe will rely on the assistance of an illegal Turkish maid, the Caribbean hooker who first ensnares him in the action, a cynical Chinese attendant in one of London's mortuaries and assorted denizens of that peculiarly opaque community of "illegals" London shares with all the world's major cities; people out of sight of those in power, but as ubiquitous in urban centers as smog and uncollected garbage. Washing dishes, making cheap clothing, selling produce in small quantities on street corners, struggling to make a better life--and propping up the bourgeois societies they serve with an endless supply of goods and services the rest of us so unconsciously depend on.

When Sneaky Juan, the swaggering night manager, learns of Okwe's medical skills, he manipulates the doctor into participating in a macabre and frightening scheme with the promise that his cooperation will be repaid with fresh passports and cash for Okwe and the Turkish maid. Frears pulls off the apparent contradictions in his plot with a climax as emotionally satisfying as it is improbable; but this is a melodrama after all, and generates a lot more box-office than does social commentary.

So if the doctor is just too relentlessly noble and his accomplices a bit too reliable and well-intentioned, ignore the obvious; focus instead on the director’s fascinating exploration of life on the margins of society --the dingy rooming houses, the harassment of bosses who know they have you over a barrel, the exhaustion of working two jobs to keep one's head above water, the feelings of helplessness in the face of impersonal forces that demand a worker’s output while ignoring their worth. Frears gets a lot of mileage out of the ambience he deploys so skillfully here, making Dirty Pretty Things more than just an exciting thriller. Consider this one "a thinking man's Whale Rider; the same exaggerated nobility of characters, but a more thoughtful and troubling examination of what life in marginalized societies is really like and what it costs those who must live in them.

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