I put movies into one of four categories: those I disliked and never want to see again; those I liked, but have no real desire to see again; those I liked and will want to revisit sometime; and those I will be in the store to buy on DVD the day they come out. Since writing this column, only a handful of new films have fallen into that last category: Moulin Rouge!, About a Boy, Lilo and Stitch and The Rules of Attraction. To this list, I now add Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, which is, to date, the film to beat for my pick as the best of 2003 (and, yes, I know that the “serious” part of this year’s film releases isn’t quite upon us yet).
Frears and screenwriter Steve Knight (whose previous credits are so obscure as to be almost nonexistent) have managed something close to the perfect balancing act between art and commerce; Dirty Pretty Things is one of those remarkable — and rare — movies that manages to satisfy the dictates of both. In fact, Frears hasn’t made a movie this compelling since Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in 1987. And, if anything, Dirty Pretty Things is even better than that.
The film’s incredible savviness lies in its taking a fairly straightforward thriller (exploitation and schlock-horror fans will recall the black-market organ-donor premise at least as far back as Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance in 1990) and carefully layering it with touches, characters and other concerns that are anything but straightforward. Frears’ film centers on the plight of London’s illegal and barely legal immigrants — people who have no rights to the menial jobs they perform, but whose “invisible” existence has become an integral part of the life of the city (despite efforts of immigration authorities).
One such person is Okwe (British stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), a refugee Nigerian doctor with a deep secret in his past. Okwe divides his time between driving a taxi and working the night desk at the Baltic Hotel — an outwardly upscale operation managed by Senor Sneaky (Sergi Lopez, With a Friend Like Harry), himself an immigrant whose legal status is never addressed. The hotel is largely staffed by people whose legal residency is open to question, from Okwe to Ivan the doorman (Croatian actor Zlatko Buric) to the Turkish chambermaid Senay (Audrey Tautou). Senay, in fact, is in the curious position of being a legal immigrant because she’s a political refugee, though that status prohibits her from working in some peculiarly British, catch-22 manner.
If the Baltic’s staff is somewhat suspect, its clientele is even more so. The thriller plot starts when a hotel regular, a prostitute named Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), suggests to Okwe that he might want to check out Room 510. Doing so, he finds the toilet clogged — with a human heart. Okwe’s status prevents him from reporting the incident, but he tries to get Sneaky to do it for him. Sneaky will have none of it — other than offering Okwe the chance to make the call he knows full well he can’t afford to make — explaining that it’s the business of a hotel to look the other way and make things appear to be all right.
Okwe’s friend, the Chinese immigrant Guo Yi (Benedict Wong, Spy Game), who works in a hospital mortuary/crematorium, and with whom Okwe plays chess (not poker, as Roger “did he actually watch this movie?” Ebert claims), is philosophical about it. In his view, the heart need not have anything to do with a murder. It may have been someone who just had the organ with him, he says, noting that he could walk around with a heart if he was “weird,” adding, “And this is a weird city.”
Despite his conscience, Okwe is more or less prepared to let it go — until he has no choice in the matter when it threatens his own existence and, even more, the life of Senay, to whom he is romantically drawn. The beauty of the plot is that it has just enough twists and turns that it’s never entirely predictable. In the words of Mantan Moreland summing up an old Charlie Chan mystery: “When you think it is, it ain’t, and when you think it ain’t, that’s just when it is!” That, however, is only part of the glory of Dirty Pretty Things, since it manages to encompass so much more than its thriller status requires — and it does so with great charm and wit.
Frears and Knight carefully avoid the pitfall of becoming too preachy through the shrewd use of humor (catch Juliette’s reaction when Okwe explains that they — Juliette, Senay and himself — are “the people you don’ see”) and never allowing the carefully built-up network of immigrants helping each other to become unbelievably precious by incorporating other immigrant characters who are only too glad to use the illegals’ status for their own ends, be they monetary or sexual.
The film also scores high marks in its depiction of the very nontraditional romance between Okwe and Senay — one of the most moving in recent years. The characters — even the stock-bad-guy ones — are all formed to an unusual degree, and you won’t see a more letter-perfect cast this year, or in many years. After her somewhat thankless role in L’Auberge Espagnole, Audrey Tautou — in her first English-speaking role — proves there’s a lot more to her than Amelie. Chiwetel Ejiofor (practice saying that name, because if there’s any justice, you’ll be seeing it a lot) gives a performance of such depth and intelligence that there ought to be an Oscar in his future. The subordinate performers are just as good and add much of the spice that makes this film so powerful.
I can’t possibly recommend this one too highly.
– Ken Hanke