Dirty Pretty Things (2003)
Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) has shown an unflinching eye at the fringe elements of society. In the new thriller Dirty Pretty Things the focus is on the struggling lives of illegal immigrants in over their heads.
The London that Frears displays is the sordid underbelly, the type that hasn’t seen the light in ages. These people are treated like theyre disposable. Those with whatever menial amount of power, even if its a single step higher, prey on these immigrants. ”How come I haven’t seen you before?” one character asks another. ”Because we are the people who are not seen,” he replies.
The heart of the film (you’ll get the pun soon) follows the lives of two immigrants. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from Nigeria and works days as a cab driver and nights as a front desk clerk at a hotel. Senay (Amelie’s Audrey Tatou) is a Turkish housekeeper at the same sleazy hotel trying to stay one step ahead of immigration police. Okwe is instructed to ignore all the salient comings and goings of the hotel. People come to us to do dirty things, says the creepy hotel manager Mr. Sneaky (yes, that is his name). Its our job to make things pretty the next morning. Things get more complicated when Okwe discovers a human heart clogging a room toilet. It seems that for some who check into the hotel, they dont check out. Okwe and Senay become entangled in a bloody scheme that threatens their lives and their immigration status.
Dirty Pretty Things is never boring, sometimes compelling, and more thrilling than you would believe with a plot concerning immigration. The characters earn our attention and emotions with Senay’s vulnerability to Okwe’s tenderness and resolute integrity. They draw us in and we genuinely care what happens as they are snared into the creepy clutches of Mr. Sneaky.
It’s here that I feel obliged to mention that Steven Knight, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things, is the co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Just consider the possibilities of future game show creators-turn-thriller screenwriters: Merv Griffin’s hard hitting thriller on the lives of firemen, anyone? It could have the corny tagline, ”There’s only one rule of firefighting – never fall in love.” Maybe this only fascinates me.
Frears’ direction is rock solid. He plays to the best aspects of thrillers, like a suffocating feeling of paranoia but doesn’t suffer the thriller flaws because of such resonant and buoyant characters. Frears is confidant to not overcompensate with his storytelling and lets the grimy locations create his stark mood for him. You can almost taste the stale air.
The acting is exceptional. Ejiofor is amazing. He gives a stellar performance rich in complexity, anxiety, uncertainty, and just plain goodness. He seems to be the last honest man in all of London. There are several scenes you can feel the debate of emotions raging inside him. Tatou, in her first English language role, gives a strong performance, though I’m curious as to where her Turkish accent went. With her penetrating dark eyes and elfin smirk, Tatou is still one of the most adorable actresses on either side of the pond.
Dirty Pretty Things is a searing look at the faceless underprivileged seeking a new life, and those who would deviously prey upon them. The film is a smart, superbly directed, and wonderfully acted thriller. It’s a thriller without weird kids who see ghosts, or lesbians with ice picks, but Dirty Pretty Things is a film thatll stay with you long after the lights go up in the theater.
Nate’s Grade: A