“How come I’ve never seen you people before?”
“Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your c**ks.”
The millions who flock to the multiplex to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster expect to see…well, exactly what they expected to see. If they came for action, then the bullets better fly. If they came for comedy, then laugh they must. Out on the fringes of the filmmaking, past the world of red carpets and press junkets, where the box office take doesn’t dictate a project’s success, you can defy an audience’s expectations. Give them something different. Challenge them. And that’s exactly what Dirty Pretty Things does.
Dirty Pretty Things tells the tale of two immigrants in the UK, one a Nigerian man named Okwe (pronounced “oak-way,” played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Love Actually), the other a Muslim Turkish woman named Senay (pronounced “shin-eye,” played by Audrey Tautou, Amélie). Okwe was a doctor in his native land, but was forced to flee a crime he didn’t commit, and now works grueling hours at two jobs — as a taxi driver by day, a hotel desk clerk by night. Senay makes ends meet by renting her couch to Okwe and working as a maid at the hotel where he works; I’m no expert on UK immigration law, but apparently both violate the terms of seeking asylum, because the authorities watch her intently. Okwe is resigned to living life at the bottom of the social ladder; Senay dreams of New York City, with lights in the trees and policemen on horseback. A series of horrible events destroys the tenuous balance of their lives. Senay is visited by the immigration authorities and must leave the hotel for work farther underground. Okwe makes a series of discoveries that uncovers the hotel manager’s racket: he preys on poor immigrants willing to undergo high-risk surgeries to sell their internal organs.
If you believe Miramax’s marketing department, Dirty Pretty Things is some sort of high-energy thriller. It’s not. If you’re like me, you’ll look at the plot details and assume Dirty Pretty Things is going to be some sort of social consciousness message movie. It’s not.
I wouldn’t have minded the “high-energy thriller” route; as Hollywood as it is, it still makes for a rousing night of entertainment. What I would minded would have been the social consciousness route. I hate people telling me how to think. Dirty Pretty Things doesn’t force us to pity these people — in fact, I’d say it’s quite the opposite, because Okwe accepts his fate; it’s its effect on others, such as Senay and the other immigrants endangered by the organ harvesting, that troubles him. The film doesn’t canonize its leads, asking us to marvel at how hard their lives are and how they are wonderful people for enduring it. I’m reminded of another foreign film I reviewed some time back, Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. It irked me that he demanded of the audience that they love and respect these characters for their virtue in the face of adversity (even though their adversity was largely self-imposed by their self-destructive behavior, but that’s slightly beside the point). Not so here. Okwe’s faults are well-documented — his negligence reporting the crimes occurring in the hotel to avoid deportation, his reliance on drugs to prop him up for his grueling schedule, his moral ambivalence toward exacting revenge on the man responsible for the organ harvesting — yet the script makes no value judgments, either positive or negative, on his character. The film also does not use its characters and their plight to pitch a rallying cry for social reform. Frankly, I find that approach patronizing — both to me, as the viewer, that the filmmakers would assume to teach or preach at me in my ignorance, and to the subject, that their plight is used as a bullet point in the filmmaker’s agenda. While I have no first-hand knowledge of immigrants in England, the writer, Steven Knight, obviously does, and he does a service to these people by not exploiting them to advance his own ideology.
So what does that leave? If I can say what Dirty Pretty Things is not, what, then, is it? Simply the story of two people’s lives. Hard lives, filled with pain, living the sort of meager existence that you and I only know vicariously. Dirty Pretty Things is simply a story…and for that I have the most profound respect for it. It’s also a story well told. Director Stephen Frears, best known to American audiences for sexually charged thrillers (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) and one of the best romantic comedies of recent years (High Fidelity), applies a gritty, realistic aesthetic to the narrative without resorting to self-consciously vérité stylistic flourishes. This was the first theatrical film from scripter Steven Knight, though he has an extensive résumé of BBC work, including, curiously, creating Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? His next film, Emma’s War, looks to also be socially relevant, but considering it’s to be helmed by Tony Scott and star Nicole Kidman, sadly it will likely not have the subtle hand he and Frears brought to Dirty Pretty Things. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly remarkable as Okwe. The gravitas and dignity he brings make Okwe a living, breathing human, not just a character in a script. Perhaps it’s because I had no frame of reference with his other work, but he made Okwe one of the most well-rounded and believable characters I have seen in a long time. On the other hand, it was difficult to separate Audrey Tautou from the titular Amélie, but Senay is a character so utterly different, and she provides such a remarkable performance, that it will not take long before you nearly forget you’ve seen her anywhere else. But, be forewarned: despite top billing and her face so prominently displayed on the cover in a provocatively topless pose, Tautou’s character is really the secondary focus of the film. It’s Okwe’s story, and she’s merely part of his life. The UK cover art features both actors with equal prominence, and without the ridiculous silhouette of a mad slasher, which is as it should be.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic video is quite nice. There’s a pleasant amount of film grain, which adds to the realistic texture. The colors are appropriately rendered; there’s a lot of dark scenes, as well as some with vivid colors, and all look excellent. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and is entirely adequate for a talkie drama. Extras include a six-minute “behind the scenes” featurette (your typical studio making-of with talking heads and on-set footage; it heavily emphasizes the thriller angle again) and a commentary with director Stephen Frears. It’s a dry commentary and prone to gaps, but has some very interesting info about the production.
Dirty Pretty Things is definitely worth a rental; as a portrait of two people living in a world most of us will never see, it is quite stunning. A purchase, though? It doesn’t have the replay value I look for in my purchases, but your mileage may vary. The court dismisses all charges against it.