Director Stephen Frears has built a body of work over the last two decades which includes films as diverse as My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, and High Fidelity — urban ethnic, historical drama, noir crime, and romantic comedy, respectively. If there is one attribute that runs as a common thread throughout this varied and accomplished oeuvre it’s the ability to tell a solid story grounded in equally solid characterizations.
Dirty Pretty Thingsreturns to contemporary ethnic London, this time multi-ethnic–the world of illegal immigrants. The focused screenplay by Steve Knight has an unapologetic agenda, laying out the ugliness of a system in which desperate refugees, fleeing from social, economic, or political oppression, are cast in a state of limbo, with no rights, regulated by a hostile bureaucracy and exploited by sweat shop employers, sexual predators, and shady operators. But the film is no political tract–it’s a cleverly plotted story that draws the audience in, cleverly parceling out its characters’ secrets as it develops, building three dimensional characterizations in the leads as well as a handful of engagingly quirky minor characters, deftly sketched. Add intrigue, suspense, and a touching love element and it all adds up to a film that is both pointed and thoroughly entertaining.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian refugee, working the desk at a posh hotel on the night shift, driving a cab during the day, and chewing on khat to keep awake. He has medical skills, so the other illegals at the cab company rely on him to treat their gonorrhea; they dare not seek legitimate medical attention. Okwe lives with Senay (Audrey Tatou), a Turkish Muslim who has been granted political asylum, but has no work permit, so is equally under the thumb of the authorities. She left Turkey, she says, because she did not want to live like her mother. (Frears sees no need to elaborate on that point–the place of women in the Muslim world has become common knowledge.) Senay works as a maid at the hotel, but is forced to leave when the immigration officers come looking for her. She needs to work to pay the rent and eat, so a sweatshop is the next unappealing alternative.
Their story is one of severely limited options for survival and the constant threat of being exposed to the authorities. Their boss at the hotel, variously known as Sneaky and Senor Juan (Sergi Lopez), has his own sleazy racket going on, preying on illegals in a heartless scheme of life and death. A Croation doorman and a Black call girl add to the mix, along with Okwe’s friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), a hospital mortician with a wry sense of humor that provides for some witty comic relief.
Ejiofor (Amistad) gives a solid performance as Okwe, retaining an internal dignity, even as the web of circumstances forces him into humbling positions. Tatou is charming as Senay, fortunately without the gamin-like quality in which she seemed to be getting stuck (Amelie, God is Great and I’m Not). Here she displays more complexity and, when called for, appropriate passion.
"We are the people you do not see," Okwe says at one point, meaning the illegals the system tolerates because they do the bottom-rung work that nobody else wants to do, while being denied the most basic rights and left vulnerable to unprincipled opportunists. Dirty Pretty Things makes an eloquent case for the plight of illegals, a message delivered without preaching, but couched in the form of first-class movie entertainment. – Arthur Lazere