Dirty Pretty Things draws us into a world no one wants to inhabit, a world where people are helpless and alone, with only their wits standing between themselves and disaster. And then it catches us pleasantly by surprise, giving its characters a nobility and sense of purpose that belie their surroundings, suggesting the veneer of civilization is both thin and porous.
But most of all, director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) and first-time screenwriter Steven Knight present viewers with a crackerjack thriller, laced with labyrinthine mysteries, moral quandaries and unspeakable evil. The message here is not that things aren't always what they seem, but that they're frequently so much more.
At the core of Dirty Pretty Things is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in an understatedly desperate and career-making performance), a Nigerian doctor forced to flee his country and live anonymously in England, where restrictive immigration laws prevent him from becoming a citizen. Like many foreigners facing a similar plight, Okwe is forced to work long hours under demeaning circumstances, catching a few hours of sleep when and where he can, serving at the beck and call of bosses just familiar enough with his situation to take advantage of it. In Okwe's case, that means working as a cab driver by day, for a boss who never hesitates to ask for an illegal favor or two, and at night as a hotel desk clerk, for a boss whose only requirement is that he remain quiet and constantly look the other way.
The hotel job takes a disturbingly ugly turn one night when Okwe discovers a human heart wedged inside a room's toilet. Taken understandably aback, he goes to his boss as what he's sure will be but a prelude to contacting the police. But the boss (a reptilian Sergi Lopez) isn't in any hurry to get the law involved. Given Okwe's illegal status, he suggests, it might be best if the Nigerian doesn't do anything that might involve questioning by the local authorities.
But this guy, whom the staff calls Sneaky behind his back, is not a humanitarian in any sense of the word. Running a hotel is only a side business; what he really does is forge citizenship papers and traffic in human organs, obtained from immigrants willing to do anything to remain in London. Preying on human misery is his profession, and once Okwe realizes what's going on, Sneaky tries to draw him into the biz. Removing a man's liver is messy business, and he could use a doctor on his underground payroll.
Okwe, of course, wants nothing to do with all this, but his desperation keeps things from being so simple. Even worse, he's developed a tentative relationship with one of the hotel's maids, a Muslim Turk named Senay (Amelie's Audrey Tautou, her waif-like vulnerability making up for her struggles with trying to sound Turkish), also an illegal alien in constant danger of being deported. Her desperation is even greater than his, her resistance to Sneaky's entreaties - it's only one liver, you'll never miss it - far less assured.
Frears is one of filmdom's most unobtrusively fascinating directors. His compellingly fluid style rarely calls attention to itself; instead, what he does is tell stories set in little corners of the human psyche most of us hardly even realize are there. In Dirty Pretty Things, he sheds light on people who operate under the world's radar, the unnoticed, chronically disregarded workers who do society's grunt work, jobs little appreciated but absolutely essential. That ignorance of their importance comes at considerable moral cost, a cost society ignores at its own peril.
But Dirty Pretty Things is anything but preachy, opening eyes and minds through example, not fiat. By getting us caught up in its characters' dilemmas - and, more importantly, making us feel both their desperation and intransigent hopelessness - Frears performs one of cinema's most difficult two-steps, giving us a film that both enthralls and enlightens.
Dirty Pretty Things
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou
Directed by Stephen Frears
Rated R (sexual content, disturbing images, language)
Released by Miramax
Time 97 minutes
Sun Score ****