DIRTY PRETTY THINGS
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant working a double shift as a mini-cab driver and night porter at a backstreet London hotel. When he stumbles across a human organ at the hotel, he is unsure what to do and confides in the arrogant, entrepreneurial hotel manager Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), his Chinese morgue attendant friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) and the Turkish hotel maid Senay (Audrey Tautou) who is working illegally while waiting for a visa and letting him share her tiny flat. Okwe is unprepared for the illicit trade he unwittingly uncovers or for the consequences on the lives of both Senay and himself.
Review by Louise Keller:
A riveting and enthralling thriller about people who live secret lives, Dirty Pretty Things is one of the freshest and most haunting films of the year. Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity) has gathered together an extraordinary international cast and created a formidable world in the twilight zone, where nothing and no-one is as they seem. An intriguing film about life below the surface, although the story is set in the underbelly of London, this melting pot of ‘people you don’t see’ emanating from all over the world, could equally be found in any major city.
When we first meet Okwe at the airport hustling for cab fares, we could easily dismiss him as yet just another cab driver. But very quickly we learn that Okwe is much more than an ordinary mini-cab driver who works a second night shift as reception at a city hotel. ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than a virtuous man,’ we hear, and Okwe’s goodness and talents are noticed and used by all – in various ways.
The hotel business is about strangers, says Sergi Lopez’ Sneaky; at night they do dirty things and in the morning things are made pretty again. But Okwe cannot turn a blind eye to anything or anyone – from a stranger needing medical attention to his Turkish asylum-seeking hotel maid colleague Senay, who lets him use her couch for a catnap between shifts.
What an assorted and eclectic bunch of people thrown together through dire need, each using clients’ souls in a different way: Juliette, the no-nonsense dimpled English prostitute; Ivan, the Russian doorman who shepherds lost souls through the hotel’s doors; Guo Yi, the Chinese coroner who cares for the eternal happiness of his dead clients. (‘If you’re good at chess, it usually means you’re bad at life,’ he muses.) English-born stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply outstanding as Okwe. He makes us look beneath the surface to find a modest and heroic man in the true sense. Okwe is a truly good person whose qualities cannot be hidden no matter what the circumstances and Ejoifor is remarkable, revealing his innermost feelings with great poignancy.
Audrey Tautou is a wonderful surprise as the Muslim Turkish maid, who has dreams beyond her oppression, of an imaginary life in New York where people skate in the park, lights sparkle in trees and (some) police ride on white horses. She discards her Amelie sweetness and embodies a vulnerable, terrified woman in search of a real life in this challenging, first English-speaking role.
Sergi Lopez (forever Harry, He is Here to Help) is chilling as the callous hotel manager who deals in souls as currency. With a simple grimace and a sharp straightening of his jacket, Lopez can convey immeasurable displays of heartless evil. When Senay tells Sneaky to ‘Go to hell!’ he growls unsettlingly ‘This is hell.’ The love story between Senay and Okwe is beautifully understated and reflects more about how they deeply care for each other, than a fleeting sexual encounter. The lighting and production design suck us into this dark world, and it’s not until the end of the film that we feel as though we have come up for air.
A wonderfully rich and intricate portrayal of relationships under duress, Dirty Pretty Things seduces us in its nebulous world.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, so it is that one man’s illegal alien is another man’s asylum seeker worthy of empathy. And this is the highly charged domain of Stephen Frear’s absorbing and confronting film. The subject matter is at the very top of the world relevance chart, and the treatment is as effective as the story brutal.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean brutal as in people getting beaten to a pulp by baseball bats. I mean brutal as in unglamorous. Frears, a filmmaker who is pretty handy with cinema as scalpel (Dangerous Liaisions), slices into the underbelly of London as a coldly alien metropolis where illegal migrants serve time in the social and bureaucratic purgatory that is at once safe haven and dangerous hideaway from their own home. The reasons are varied, and sometimes they matter more than others.
But Frears isn’t documenting the global social phenomenon; he’s focusing on two specific individuals who are co-dependent in a dangerous world, and what happens to them. These are the heroes of the story, and we empathise with them.
This raises the question whether Frears is glamourising illegal migrants or putting a human face to every such alien. And if so, is it justified? Or is he just another bleeding heart liberal mawkishly setting us up with a sob story? Or, indeed, is it an example of just two people out of millions, and this is their story, neither a generalised half-truth nor a political statement.
Putting a human face to two statistics, is of course, a political statement. That’s why authorities are loath to humanise asylum seekers/ refugees/ illegal migrants/ boat people … once we see their individual humanity and discover what lies behind their status, their motivations, it becomes almost impossible to look at them as mere statistics.
But Dirty Pretty Things (not a title I would have chosen) is an excellent film, as well as an important one, combining the outer story with an inner, emotional one. Steven Knight’s screenplay is a pungently, frighteningly unsentimental observation of this demi-monde, where the most ghastly things are done in the name of survival. The plot is clear and dynamic, although I would have liked more clarity around the details of Okwe’s first and most arresting discovery of a human organ. Chris Mengs’ cinematography avoids every London cliché and manages to maintain a naturalistic look which at the same time is predetermined.
This is a sobering drama, but always accessible and adorned with superb performances from a sensational cast.
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DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (MA)
CAST: Audrey Tautou, Sergi López, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric
PRODUCER: Robert Jones, Tracey Seaward
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
SCRIPT: Steve Knight
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Chris Menges
EDITOR: Mick Audsley
MUSIC: Nathan Larson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Buena Vista International
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 10, 2004