Dirty Pretty Things (15)
Beneath the surface of the capital exists a world very few of us ever stop to consider: that of the illegal immigrant.
And in Dirty Pretty Things director Stephen Frears scrapes away the top layer of this scummy life and exposes the people who are forced by circumstance to live a hand-to-mouth existence.
Two of them form the focus of Frears’ excoriating slice of seedy realism – Nigerian doctor Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), moonlighting as a cab driver by day and hotel reception clerk by night, and Turkish virgin Senay (Audrey Tautou), a maid at the same hotel, who lets Okwe sleep on her sofa.
Life boils down to working, sleeping and avoiding the fascistic Immigration officers who descend like the Gestapo on unsuspecting illegals. Then there is Sneaky (Sergi López in deliciously predatory form), who seems to know everything about everyone, and who operates some sort of murky business from the hotel. It’s not long before both Okwe and Senay are caught up in it.
Dirty Pretty Things begins like a Mike Leigh film but rapidly becomes a very different piece of cinema entirely when a hooker leaves the hotel and Okwe finds a human heart blocking the toilet in her room.
His investigations take him into a world he never accepted existed – that of illegal organ harvesting. It proves that, as a shadowy figure desperate to retain some form of anonymity, an illegal immigrant is prey to every sort of vampire.
The situation is rammed home when Okwe comes across an African man whose kidney has been removed, leaving him gutted like a carcass in a butcher’s shop. Suddenly he’s forced to become a backstreet surgeon, whether he likes it or not.
Okwe is played with gentility and humanity by Ejiofor in what should, in a fair world, be both a breakthrough and a star-making performance. He is equalled in this by Tautou, of Amélie fame who, in a wink, proves herself to be more than just a comic actress.
There is discernible chemistry here, though some of the believability is tempered by the fact that Frears makes his hero and heroine just a little too good to be true. As one character observes “There’s nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man” and, in terms of the plotting, the danger comes from Frears’ desire to fly high his flag of liberalism.
Consequently Dirty Pretty Things casts its protagonists as damaged but fundamentally good. Their predators – Sneaky, the immigration officers and a particularly repellent sweatshop owner who forces Senay into sex acts to preserve her fragile freedom – are painted as foul abusers.
Anyone with a strong view of the UK’s illegal immigration issue will find themselves placed on one side or the other in Frears’ overtly political drama, yet thanks to the assured and sympathetic playing of Chiwetel and Tautou (as well as López’s monster) the majority will come down on the side of the central couple.
This is powerful stuff and impossible to ignore. While it wears its heart rather too obviously on its sleeve it is nevertheless a compelling examination (though occasionally too OTT) of the nature of a problem that is growing daily with acting, directing and a script (by Steven Knight) that is both powerful and shocking in its revelations and intensity.