Monday Movie: Dirty Pretty Things, by David Bax
The topics of diversity in casting and minority representation have been much on the minds of the cinephile community of late, and deservedly so. With that in mind, it might be time to recognize Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things from 2002, a film that takes place in London but has no major characters who are native to the United Kingdom and, in addition to English, unfolds in Somali, Spanish and French. It’s as tight as a snare drum and, by embracing classical genres like mystery, thriller and romance, Frears packs all the weight of a heady and sober social problem picture about the parallel underworld inhabited by immigrants in major Western cities into a package that’s as grippingly entertaining as it is eye-opening.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian doctor who is in the country illegally and working two jobs as a cab driver and an overnight hotel desk clerk, grabs sleep when he can on the couch of Senay (Audrey Tatou), a Turkish woman with no work visa who gets paid under the table cleaning the same hotel. When Okwe checks on a complaint of a blocked toilet in one of the guest rooms, he finds that the source of the problem is a human heart (in addition to the genres mentioned above, Frears dresses the film with touches of horror). Finding out that hotel manager Juan is running an organs-for-passports operation is scary but having that knowledge as an illegal immigrant carries with it a whole host of other dangers.
Frears uses the high stakes mystery elements to underline the constant fear and vigilance that comes along with the life of someone in a country illegally. With a larger tapestry of players that includes Chinese, Croatian and many other nationalities, the film shows us that existential threats to such people come both from the native authorities and from other immigrants, especially those who do have their papers in order. Like a mix of Brian DePalma and John Sayles, Dirty Pretty Things is as tense and exciting as it is sobering.