An unflinching look at society's expendables...
`Dirty Pretty Things', Stephen Frears' latest film played last year in Europe, but the North American opportunity to see it only came yesterday. Much buzz, fortunately all merited, preceded it: an amazing Nigerian actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, already acclaimed for his stage performances, makes his big-screen debut, while Audrey Tatou, the impossibly wide-eyed kook from 2001's `Amelie', tackles her first English-language movie role.
Frears' film details the story of those faceless, nameless human beings of a variety of ethnicities, who, for a multitude of reasons--all marked by desperation--sneak into England. Then, until they wangle a way of getting a British passport, they lead the hunted, humiliating lives of the illegal immigrant. The Nigerian Okwe is one such person: a pathologist in his home country, he is reduced to driving cabs by day and moonlighting as the sole front-desk worker in a London hotel by night. During the day, he grabs a couple of hours of sleep on the couch of a Turkish co-worker, a hotel maid named Senay, played by Audrey Tatou. As in most hotels in these straitened times, the night staff deals with the usual sordid emergencies that arise when the nocturnal creatures of the city are on the prowl. Prostitution and drugs are routine phenomena, but when he finds a human heart clogging a toilet in one of the rooms, Okwe realizes that something far more sinister is afoot.
For the illegal immigrants portrayed in the film, it is an ongoing struggle to hold onto some semblance of integrity, humanity, and dignity, as the Society around them exploits and hounds them mercilessly, safe in the knowledge that nothing would be reported to the authorities. Each character makes more compromises and greater sacrifices, all for freedom, which as the tagline of the film sums up, comes at a price. Senay is a hair's breadth away from getting her residency papers, when she runs afoul of the law and has to go on the lam to avoid deportation. Okwe, the cause of her problems, feels duty-bound to see that she remains safe. But by persisting in his efforts to unravel the mystery of the heart in the toilet, he becomes increasingly exposed to those who would harm him and Senay.
Interestingly, though this film is set in London, none of the main characters is English: there's Juliette, an ironically-named feisty West Indian hooker who plies her trade in the hotel; Ivan, the Russian doorman; Senor Juan or `Sneaky', another hotel employee who makes use of the hotel for his own money-making schemes; Gou Yi, a Chinese night porter in a morgue; a motley collection of Somali, Nigerian, and Kenyan men who work at the cab company, and the South Asian owner of a sweatshop. Even the Immigration inspectors who make the dreaded surprise checks for illegal aliens are of color, but they have been elevated into a privileged stratum of society by their passports. These people alternately help each other and prey on each other for another person's frailty is always a source of profit; while a person with knowledge of one's past is someone to be feared. The London we see through their eyes is unrecognizable--squalid, begrimed, crowded, sleazy, perilous--not at all the gleaming promised land of immigrant fantasies.
Part anthropological documentary, part thriller, and part tentative, unlikely love story, this film keeps one riveted throughout. The unfortunates in the film live by their wits and survive by hanging on to their senses of humor. But as one degrading or dehumanizing experience piles itself atop another, you see them question the worth of the Holy Grail that is the British passport. However as there is no going back, they are forced to continue. Every now and then, they find it in themselves to hit back, making you want to applaud their diffident, costly bravery.
The film belongs to the lead pair. Ejiofor, with his expressive dark eyes and handsome face, registers every affront to his humanity; he inhabits the character of Okwe completely and takes us along on the bleak, dangerous journey that Okwe is forced into. Likewise, Tatou breaks our hearts as she is exploited time and again; she is an actress of such luminous transparency and vulnerability that one empathizes with every tribulation of Senay's. This is a far more dramatically demanding role than `Amelie' and Tatou is up to its challenges. Sergi Lopez, who's star-making turn in the French film `With A Friend like Harry' did not go unnoticed in North America, has created a charming whisky-guzzling monster in Senor Juan. Juan is the ultimate amoral opportunist, a Brylcreemed, Mercedes-driving vulture, and Lopez does not shy away from showing himself at his worst. Benedict Wong and Sophie Okonedo are first-rate, too, as the philosophical chess-playing morgue-worker buddy of Okwe and Juliette the rebellious prostitute respectively.
`Dirty Pretty Things', brilliantly written by Steve Knight, maintains its unpredictability right up to its surprise ending. Stephen Frears--no stranger to the seamy side of human nature (`My Beautiful Launderette', `Dangerous Liaisons', `The Grifters' being cases in point)--has crafted the film with delicacy and intelligence. A lesser director might have turned it into a sentimental morass, but Frears, with an unerring sense for a good story, abstains from making his characters too noble, too courageous, or too upstanding, rendering them altogether human and memorable.
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Dirty Pretty Things. Directed by Steven Frears. UK release date: 13 December. US release scheduled for April 2003. Rating: ★★★★
This gritty British film centres on a hotel night porter who finds a human heart blocking the toilet in one of the guest rooms. The story builds up a complex and desperate picture of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.
Okwe (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian doctor working in London (as a taxi driver by day and a hotel porter by night). He doesn't like to sleep and grinds away in a daily quest for survival. He lives, secretly, with Saney (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish woman who has been granted asylum.
Screen writer Steven Knight's story is based around the “business of strangers” in hotels and the contrast between the privileged lifestyle of the guests and the alarming goings on behind doors marked “staff only.” When Okwe finds the human heart, he eventually uncovers a market in illegal human organs.
The hotel proprietor is the creepy Juan, who makes his fortune out of the misery of desperate people. He trades a kidney for £10 000, keeping the money for himself, and giving the donor a passport. The lure of a new identity means that Juan has no shortage of people willing to undergo such drastic surgery within the hotel. And as with all surgery, sometimes it goes wrong—hence Okwe's discovery of the heart.
Knight wrote the film not to beat the drum about asylum seekers but to expose a world that is, for the most part, completely alien to the rest of us—the world of cleaners, minicab drivers, and factory shift workers. Dirty Pretty Things poignantly portrays a London that is normally invisible to most of us going about our daily lives—a world where people live outside the law, without decent housing, and are unable to use services such as the police and health care that the rest of us take for granted. This becomes acute when Okwe cannot report his discovery of the heart for fear of being deported. For similar reasons, the kidney donors left with systemic and life threatening sepsis as a result of shoddy surgery feel that they cannot go to hospital.
Despite the occasional surfacing scandal, the illegal trade in human organs is often dismissed as apocryphal. While a film can offer no proof, Dirty PrettyThings portrays such a divided society that the idea of sacrificing the poor and dispossessed to provide life for the rich, in the form of organs, seems entirely credible.
This film, which opened the London Film Festival, made me feel differently about the world around me. The tabloid media and governments in the West would do well to sit up and notice it.
The secret life of asylum seekers: Ejiofor and Tautou in Dirty Pretty Things