Dirty Pretty Things

Dirty Pretty Things

UK/USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi López, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric
Writer: Steven Knight
Music: Nathan Larson
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Producers: Tracey Seaward, Robert Jones
Director: Stephen Frears


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm feature and interview with Audrey Tautou.

"H ow come I've never seen you before?" demands the Englishman of Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant from Nigeria living in London.

"Because we're the people you do not see," replies Okwe.

It's the most explicit statement in Dirty Pretty Things, an intensely political film from veteran director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity), set in the confining and desolate world of London's marginal inhabitants—the ones who aren't supposed to be there, whose every moment of survival is a hard-won victory in an endless battle that often ends in deportation or death.

Did I say living in London? Hiding out in London is more like it. Okwe works two job, dodges immigration officers, and grabs a few hours' rest anywhere he can, like in the mortuary at the hospital where his buddy Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) works as a porter. Okwe is a doctor by training, but now he's driving a cab, and working the redeye shift at the front desk of the seamy Baltic Hotel. Okwe shares a flat and some kind of a bond with lovely Senay (Audrey Tautou), a young Turkish illegal who makes beds and swabs toilets at the Baltic, but there is no time or energy for love when you're trying just to get from one day to the next.Ejiofor and Tautou at the Baltic

Okwe keeps to himself and stays out of other people's business, but medical services are in demand among the city's disenfranchised. Other people's business tends to come to him. One night, in room 510 of the Baltic Hotel, Okwe discovers something that would make even David Lynch queasy. The discovery draws him from his everyday dangers into deeper peril.

The acting is superb. Okwe is an unlikely and understated hero with a rich inner life that Ejiofor lets flicker across his face occasionally. As hotel manager Sneaky, whose ethics are as fungible as the blood money that passes through his hands, Sergi López does the convivial villain thing well, and Sophie Okonedo is credible and sweet as that old standby, the Hooker with the Heart of Gold. The standout is Tautou. It's a good thing Frears hadn't yet seen Amélie, because he might never have cast Tautou otherwise. Forget what Tautou looks like in the poster for Dirty Pretty Things—that's marketing bullshit. Imagine Tautou for a moment as Amélie Poulain—that curling semicircle of a smile, those beguilingly mischievous eyes underneath playfully arching brows, the vibrant makeup, and that odd bob of a haircut. Are you visualizing her? Good. Now imagine a young woman completely the opposite of that. That's Tautou in Dirty Pretty Things, world-weary and worn down, her huge eyes flat and hardened. When she speaks, it's not in French-accented English; it's in Turkish-accented English. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to speak a language with a foreign accent when you only speak it with a different foreign accent? It's an astonishing transformation.

London is just as unrecognizable. The London of the illegals is an anonymous underworld that props up the rich, cosmopolitan London most people are used to. This London meets with that London only in exploitive sweatshops and sordid hotel rooms. There are no spacious squares and beautiful bridges in their London, only grime, anguish, and constant fear. If their London is an underworld, the Baltic Hotel is a gate to a deeper Hell, where dirty things occur and are rendered pretty again by morning, as Sneaky observes. In contrast to the gray, dingy city, the Baltic pulses with malevolent energy.

Dirty Pretty Things is a movie with Things to Say on an Important Issue—the treatment of illegals in the developed countries—but one whose political intentions have not overpowered its quietly gripping story—a kind of gothic horror tale, as Frears has aptly described it. Instead of making a nihilistic film that focuses on his characters' despair, he has powered the film with their indomitable drive to survive. That makes for compelling viewing, and may open a few eyes in the process.

Review © July 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page