London underground 

A review of Dirty Pretty Things

Dirty Pretty Things (R)

Stephen Frears is one of a handful of auteurs who hasn't been pigeonholed by a limited shtick, bad planning or burnout. Like Robert Altman, Ang Lee, and John Sayles, he's experienced both the good and the bad of Hollywood (High Fidelity, Mary Reilly, Dangerous Liaisons) as well as art house acclaim (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Snapper).

Owing to its lack of star power -- Amelie's Audrey Tautou supplies the only brand name -- Dirty Pretty Things is situated squarely within the art house camp. This noir of the global labor marketplace is set in a London seldom seen in feature films: the invisible lives of illegal refugees toiling in hotels, cabs and sweatshops.

The greatest actor you've never heard of, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Okwe, a Nigerian refugee who toils around the clock lest idle time give rise to the demons of his past. Driving an off-license taxi, manning the graveyard shift at the front desk at a posh hotel, Okwe gnaws an unspecified green root that helps keep his red eyes open.

A surgeon by trade, Okwe is forever falling victim to his own competency: Early in the film, his cabbie boss summons him to a back room, and promptly drops trow to reveal a clap-plagued penis. After successfully procuring the proper ointment, Okwe becomes a one-man STD clinic for the entire fleet of cabbies.

Between shifts, he visits his ponderous chess partner Guo (Benedict Wong) a hospital mortician with a penchant for dispensing tough-love advice. While Okwe humiliates his friend at chess, the two pontificate on his hopeless existence as an illegal alien. This becomes all the bleaker when his fellow illegal flat mate, Senay, a nervous and pouty Turkish virgin, comes under the scrutiny of two hardnosed immigration agents.

One of this film's many ironies is that despite being set in contemporary London, white English folk rarely appear on screen. There are Russians and Greeks and assorted ethnic Europeans, but hardly anyone that most Americans would associate as "English." Both the exploiters and the exploited are fresh off the boat, so to speak, or removed from their less fortunate brethren by little more than a passport.

The American immigrant narrative, exemplified recently in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, is one of huddled masses of expendable greenhorns who, if nothing else, understand the imperative of ethnic solidarity. The immigrants of Frears' London, however, are as deracinated as they are atomized. Their assets quickly turn into vulnerabilities, wedges by which soulless labor hustlers can exploit them.

The story picks up speed when Okwe scoops a severed heart from the clogged toilet of a hotel room. Shortly after bringing the disemboweled organ to his boss' attention, he becomes inexorably compromised in the hotel's subterranean racket: a barter system where illegal aliens pawn kidneys for passports.

Frears offers a third act chock full of redemption and executed with a staggering discipline rarely known to American directors. At risk of movie-ruining disclosure, let's just say if this were a Robert Zemeckis or Steven Spielberg job, the score alone would obliterate all possibility of generating an original emotional response. For the most part, Frears keeps his camera and characters cool, abetted by a tight script from Steve Knight, whose previous work includes Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire.

But the real star is Ejiofor, who manages a cauldron of conflicting emotions and controlled pathos. His name should be widely known, if not properly pronounced, but for all the substantive roles available to black men, perhaps he's best kept as a jewel of the English stage. Then again, if Frears is as buoyant as his rsum, perhaps he might smuggle him into his next Hollywood effort. Even at SAG scale, he'd hardly be exploited.

--John Dicker


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