Frears and Tautou Strike Political Chord
By Jeremy Mathews

“Dirty Pretty Things”
Miramax Films
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Steve Knight
Produced by Robert Jones and Tracey Sea
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi López, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong and Zlatko Buric
Rated R
Opens at the Broadway

(out of four)

Immigrants in England risk their lives selling their bodily organs for passports.

  While the ad campaign for "Dirty Pretty Things" takes advantage of the film's ambiguous, sexy-sounding title, it's actually a political peice about illegal immigrants in England.

This isn’t something they’d likely want to do if conditions weren’t overly oppressive in their respective motherlands. And yet, for various reasons, the government doesn’t grant them citizenship. Stephen Frears’s politically charged “Dirty Pretty Things” uses these issues as the backdrop for a personal story about people living in harsh conditions.

So harsh that the main character doesn’t sleep through the whole film. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) drives a cab by day and works a hotel’s front desk at night, eating a stimulant herb to stay awake. He knows how bad this is for his health because he was a doctor in his former country, Nigeria. His cab manager asks him for help curing STDs, but the hotel is the real medical nightmare.

French star Audrey Tatou plays Senay, a Turkish immigrant who works the day shift in the hotel, even though her papers require that she not work for six months. She lets Okwe use her room as a rest stop, but remains very secretive about it due to her religious beliefs.

Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski’s production design and Chris Menges’s low-key cinematography help create the hotel’s sleazy feel. Prostitutes make the rounds and the doorman has his own business interests, including keeping room service going after the kitchen closes by making the sandwiches himself.

The real source of evil, however, is the hotel manager, Sneaky (Sergi López of “With a Friend Like Harry…”), whose shady dealings become clearer and clearer as the truth unfolds, starting when Okwe, on a prostitute’s tip, finds a heart in a clogged toilet in one of the rooms.


He assumes that a murder took place, but can’t call the cops himself. When Sneaky hears the news, he surprises Okwe by caring little and doing nothing. As it becomes clearer what’s happening, Okwe is powerless to stop it because of his status.

At the same time, Senay faces investigation from immigrant officials who suspect that she’s been working. Tatou creates sympathy for her character, whose labor restrictions clash with financial and moral problems. This surprising performance is her most complete and impressive one since “Amelie.”

Okwe’s friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), who has a job in the hospital morgue, acts as an aid to Okwe and Senay and provides humanity to contrast with Sneaky’s opportunistic exploits as well as success to counter the suffering of so many of the other characters.

The great Frears has made several impressive films in his time, exploring political topics in works like “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” but also grasping personal relationships in BBC play productions and great films like “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters.” The latter film explores a tragedy-fated underworld very different from that in “Dirty Pretty Things,” but similar with its desperate characters facing dilemmas.

Okwe refuses to help Sneaky with the surgeries because it’s unethical and illegal, but at the same time, he’d be ensuring the willing victims better health for them than if they were to undergo the unsanitary operation, when they would inevitably give up their organs.

The film also deals with love and romance and how unlikely they are in situations in which one has to struggle all day to survive.

Frears, Ejiofor and the other actors keep some of the more preachy material from going over the top, playing it low-key for added emotional impact instead of over-playing the scenes and becoming comical. Instead, the characters create an emotional platform from which the real political situation can be examined.

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