Dirty Pretty Things
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Stephen Frears has given us a mixed bag over the years. He’s directed great films like “The Grifters,” and the working-class slacker romance “High Fidelity.” He’s also the one behind the off-and-on Peckinpah completion “The Hi-Lo Country,” and the infamous flop of “Mary Reilly.” With his newest film, however, “Dirty Pretty Things,” Frears has made one of his best films to date. He abandons the “cuteness” evident in many of his urban dramas, and gives a harsh, yet rather honest tale of the immigrant experience.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) drives a cab by day, and works reception in a posh hotel by night. He chews herbs to keep him awake, and pretends to sleep on a friends couch every night. His friend is Turkish expat Senay (the doe-eyed Audrey Tautou, wonderfully whiny). He never reveals his past to anyone, and is hoping to squeak by in the background, doing the best job he can, hiding his past as a doctor, and occasionally helping friends (he is able to lift some amoxicillin to help his syphilitic cabbie boss). When he finds a human heart clogging the toilet in the hotel, he is taken into a plot of his smarmy and ethics-optional hotel boss (Sergi López, in one of the best performances I’ve seen this year) to harvest organs in exchange for passports and money.
It feels almost like a film by Fassbinder, a master of adult and painful human interaction. When the film focuses on its “thriller” aspects of an organ trafficking ring, it feels a little pat. It’s when we see Okwe struggling with doing the right thing and asking important ethical questions (is it o.k. to violate your own ethics if it will help you and those close to you?) that it soars. The colors are alternately muted and bright, and the events unfold in a bizarre way that feels partly like another planet (a human heart in a toilet?), and partly utterly familiar.
We are also given a harsh look at the modern immigrant experience. Always on the edge, always in danger of being arrested and/or deported. Illegals in England are not allowed to have a job, so the simple task of going to work becomes a Herculean act of courage, and only occasionally leads to having to trade sexual favors. We feel their struggle. When love begins to enter the picture (between Okwe and Senay), it feels wonderful, but also dangerous. The film is maudlin to be sure, but is brought up by the performances, notably of Ejiofor, López, and the lively supporting characters: a prostitute (Sophie Okonedo), and a coroner (Benedict Wong). It’s a film close to being one of the best of the year.