`Dirty Pretty Things’ a dense film that delivers
September 10, 2003
The city of London is hardly ever glimpsed in “Dirty Pretty Things.” Director Stephen Frears’ film takes place almost entirely indoors, in dark, walled-off buildings that allow in little light or air or even other people. Until the final scene, the film is set within a radius of a few blocks of downtown London, and the camera never strays to give any kind of panoramic sense of the setting. In the few, brief outdoors sequences, the film conveys nothing more than the sense of physical tightness that tall buildings, one after another, impart.
London is, in fact, a major player in “Dirty Pretty Things,” and perhaps the central character. The film effectively touches on a great many things: sex, law, violence, love, medicine, human dignity, and politics, both local and global. But at the bottom of all those subjects is London, a vast melting pot that allows people to both remain anonymous and operate in practically any way they want. “Dirty Pretty Things” is about the seediness, the lawlessness, the dirtiness of the city, and how its characters make up their lives amidst it all.
And it’s not just London. Though the film has a definite London flavor, especially in its multicultural stew, the story of “Dirty Pretty Things” could just have easily been set in Paris, Los Angeles or Amsterdam. The subtle, running joke of the film is that Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish native seeking political asylum in London, desperately wants to escape the city. Her great desire? To make it to New York City, a place where, in her vision, the trees are strung with Christmas lights in the winter and the police ride tall on white horses.
For all it has to say about the big, messy city, “Dirty Pretty Things” is also very much a movie about its characters and story. The camera never takes in the whole of London, but it focuses on the characters, taking them in with lingering close-ups.
The film opens with Okwe (“Amistad’s” Chiwetel Ejiofor), a cab driver desperately trying to land a fare in a London airport. Two businessmen ask if he has been sent by the sultan to pick them up. “No,” says Okwe. But he assures them, with grave sincerity, that he is there to assist those “who have been lost in the system.”
Okwe is among those left to his own devices. The Nigerian immigrant works days driving the cab, and nights at a London hotel, handling every last odd detail that needs attention, from protecting the prostitutes to cleaning overflowing toilets. He lives on a couch in Senay’s shabby apartment; the two of them work together at the hotel, where Senay cleans rooms.
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Okwe’s life is a shadow existence. As an illegal immigrant, he is subject to being sent back to Nigeria at any moment. His living arrangement is illegal: As someone seeking political asylum, Senay isn’t supposed to make any income off her apartment; she isn’t even supposed to be working. The two share one key and have quiet arrangements for not being seen together. Even the obvious attraction Okwe and Senay have for each another remains unspoken.
And Okwe, it turns out, is a physician, a detail he tries in vain to keep hushed. But that secret begins to unravel one night at the hotel, when Okwe finds that the source of a clogged toilet is a human heart. Too decent a person – and too constrained by his doctor’s oaths – to ignore it, Okwe brings the disturbing organ to the attention of Senor Juan, the greasy, villainous head of the hotel’s staff. Juan taunts Okwe, dialing the police and daring Okwe to report his finding. Okwe can’t; his life is too much a secret to risk involvement with the authorities.
The discovery of the heart leads Okwe down the hotel’s dark rabbit hole, into the world of prostitution, black-market organ dealing and illegal immigration. It is a world that parallels Okwe’s in its secretiveness and slippery morality. Okwe’s mere presence in London is as illegal as the filthy, dangerous organ trade. And while Okwe (for reasons eventually revealed in the film) has good, urgent reasons for being in London, there are arguably sound justifications for black-market organ dealing: it saves lives; it provides money and other necessities to those willing to lose a kidney.
Director Frears, an Englishman, has tackled vast ground in his previous body of films. He has done memorable work in romantic comedy (“High Fidelity”), period dramas (“Dangerous Liaisons”), gritty Mob movies (“The Grifters”), and historical stories (“Prick Up Your Ears”). (Frears has also turned in a middling Western, “The Hi-Lo Country,” and the poorly received chamber drama “Mary Reilly.”)
With “Dirty Pretty Things,” Frears is at his most assured, and most ambitious. In just over a hundred minutes, “Dirty Pretty Things” manages to offer sharp insight into all of the areas it examines. It works as a crime thriller and love story, as character study, morality play and political commentary.
Tautou, who shined in the complex but lighthearted “Amelie,” shows considerable depth here. Her Senay is vulnerable but strong-willed, and a pleasure to look at. Ejiofor is a strong presence, even if his performance can be overly earnest.
But perhaps the best evidence of Frears’ focused energy here – and the quality of the Steve Knight screenplay – is the attention paid to the smaller roles. Every supporting character – a sharp, kindly prostitute (Sophie Okonedo), a hospital morgue attendant (Benedict Wong), a slimy sweatshop owner (Paul Bhattacharjee), and Senor Juan (Sergi Lopez) – are all finely tuned pieces of the film.
It adds up to a densely packed film. And “Dirty Pretty Things” delivers on every facet.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org