‘Dirty Pretty Things’

Director Stephen Frears crafts an unusual work, with hints of film noir, social commentary, comedy and romance.

By: Bob Brown
   There’s more to England than the bucolic pastures and burnished interiors of Merchant-Ivory. Lately, we have begun to see more of the subterranean, gritty side. In Dirty Pretty Things, the white Anglo-Saxons are a thin veneer on the substrata of serving-class immigrants — some legal, some not. For them, London’s brick-and-stone canyons are a prison of servitude. There’s no future and no escape without means or documents.
   Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette and High Fidelity) directs this screenplay by Steve Knight, his first. Although Knight is breaking into film, he is an accomplished novelist and veteran of BBC TV. His most notable accomplishment, however, is as co-creator of the original concept for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Perhaps it’s fitting that his debut in the movies should be a thriller.
   A Nigerian doctor, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amistad), is one step ahead of the immigration police while he works two jobs — as a cabbie and as a night clerk at a hotel. During the day, he catnatps ("I never sleep") on a borrowed sofa in the tiny flat of hotel co-worker Senay (Audrey Tautou, Amélie), a Turkish woman. Although not lovers, the two are allies against detection.
   Okwe is an intelligent, proper man with compassion and principles. These traits are disadvantages where deceit and blackmail are survival tools and more. His medical source, chess partner and confidante is Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), a young Chinese doctor who covers the night shift at the hospital morgue. While Okwe masters the chessboard, he mishandles life — including his relationship with Senay. An exasperated Yi tells him, "Can’t you see she’s in love with you? I know her for only 20 minutes and even I see that. Men who are good at chess are bad at life. Me, I’m bad at chess."
   One who plays the game of life without principle is Okwe’s boss, the hotel concierge Mr. Juan (Sergi López). Juan is strangely callous when Okwe discovers that a toilet blockage is a fresh human heart. "We must call the police," Okwe warns. Juan offers to let Okwe do so. The choice is to accept the realities. "This is a hotel. Guests come in and make things dirty. It’s our job to clean up and make them pretty again." What Okwe discovers is Juan’s dirty secret. As a Spanish immigrant himself, Juan knows how to pressure illegals into submitting to his horrifying schemes.
   Meanwhile, Senay escapes Juan’s plans by jumping to a sweatshop, where conditions are even worse. Authorities have tracked her there. In return for secrecy, her boss demands sexual favors. She is desperate to join her cousin in New York City, but she hasn’t the money or the papers to do so. Okwe cannot ignore her troubles and looks for a way out. But his own position is jeopardized when Juan discovers a dark secret that Okwe himself is hiding. Juan uses this as leverage to get Okwe to join his scheme and to pressure Senay to submit to his own plans. Okwe must maneuver around this to get what he wants for himself and Senay.
   There are many pleasures in this unusual work, which is part film noir, part social commentary, part comedy and part love story. The script is smart and spare. The characters are individuals. They operate outside the clichés. And the acting is wonderfully understated. Ejiofor (a native Londoner of Nigerian parentage) plays a serious, concentrated man who hardly cracks a smile or sheds a tear until the last climactic line of the film. It’s a powerfully rewarding moment.
   You’d hardly imagine that Tautou is the same actress who played the mischievous ingenue Amélie, dominating screens for most of last year and smashing box-office records in France. Her Senay is heartbreakingly nuanced and sober. It’s a bit of a shock to hear her speak English. In fact, Tautou was afraid that Frears might not have picked her for the part if he had seen Amélie first. Frears prepared her for Senay by connecting Tautou with London’s Turkish immigrant community, where she learned to speak with a Turkish accent.
   López, a Spanish actor who’s made a name in French film (An Affair of Love and With a Friend Like Harry), plays a gleeful villain who is an opportunist indifferent to niceties. He creates a character with charm and humor.
   What really makes the film stand out from a crowded field of romantic movies (many failures) is its refusal to satisfy an urge for full closure. While the denouement is morally and spiritually uplifting, you leave the table still hungry without dessert. But that’s entirely appropriate to the characters and the situations. In the end, aren’t all true love affairs a constant yearning for more?
Rated R. Contains sexual content, disturbing images and language.