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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 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.

Published November 11, 2004

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CAST: Audrey Tautou, Sergi López, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric

DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears

SCRIPT: Steve Knight

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes




DVD RELEASE: November 10, 2004

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