Moving Melting Pot Melodrama Masquerades as a Mystery
Review by Kam Williams
In 1998, Peter Berg directed a claustrophobic cult hit entitled Very Bad Things, set in Las Vegas, a crime thriller that revolved around the fallout for the participants in a hotel bachelor party after the accidental killing of a call girl during the festivities.
Now we have, Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette), with not only a similar sounding title, but also the same point of departure an untimely death involving a prostitute at a hotel in this case, one located in London.
Fortunately, that's where the resemblance between the two movies ends, as Frears has fashioned a far more sophisticated whodunit, one that simultaneously serves up an equally inscrutable love story, while commenting on the dystopia that is present-day England's illegal-immigrant subculture.
From this picture's point of view, London is a city overrun by an influx of foreigners from all parts of the Third World, easily exploited, minimum-wage slaves who must rely on a combination of a black market economy, the charity of strangers, and their own cunning just to make ends meet.
It is against this backdrop that Dirty Pretty Things unfolds, suggesting that some of those not caught by the Melting Pot's shadowy safety net must turn to desperate measures most of us would consider unthinkable. The film stars Audrey Tautou, the French ingenue who first wowed audiences in 1999 with her Cesar-winning performance as a young beautician being stalked by an amorous, elderly widower in the bittersweet Venus Beauty Institute.
The next year, Tautou had another impressive outing in Happenstance, though she really only caught America's eye for her work as the wide-eyed, waifish title character in the readily digestible Amelie, the modern fable which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Film. Here, the actress exhibits the extraordinary range of her talent in the role of hotel maid Senay, an unmarried Turkish virgin, unlawfully employed and ever-vigilant to keep a step ahead of the immigration authorities.
Although, as Senay explains, she escaped Turkey because, "I do not want to live like my mother," she remains psychologically constrained by repressive Old World mores. So, she goes to great lengths to keep up a chaste image, allowing Okwe, her would-be boyfriend, to live with her on the condition that he not let others in on their budding romantic liaison.
Chiwetel Ejiofor co-stars as Okwe, a dignified Nigerian refugee who is a cabbie by day and a hotel receptionist by night. But, because back in his homeland he was a medical doctor, he now finds his services still in demand from other illegals who dare not risk entering a hospital for fear of discovery and deportation.
Okwe and Senay both work at the upscale Baltic Hotel, where an upstairs-downstairs like cleaving of rich from poor has left its foreign-born employees to function in their own, invisible underworld which operates in accordance with its own set of rules. There's Ivan (Zlatko Buric), the Russian doorman who has learned to look the other way when appropriate, while atop the pecking order sits Juan (Sergio Lopez), the corrupt general manager from Spain, a sneak who can forge a passport for the right price.
We soon see that a person trapped in this dog-eat-dog scenario must be wary of evildoers eager to capitalize on the misfortune of others. The plot thickens the day Okwe is asked by departing streetwalker Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) to clear a backed-up toilet in room 510. Imagine his surprise when he discovers it to be clogged by a human heart. What Okwe finds even more astounding is the manager's decision to downplay the discovery, warning him that, "The hotel business will always surprise you. Stick to helping people who can be helped."
Any deeper incursion into the labyrinthine plot would unfairly spoil its bounty of delicious developments. It's enough for me to say that Dirty Pretty Things was shot entirely on location, in a London tinged with a distinctly seamy cast. High praise is in order for director Frears for portraying, so palbably and so sympathetically, the parallel reality of an underclass which ordinarily goes unnoticed. For, as Okwe informs an inquisitive Brit at the film's defining moment, "We are the people you don't see. We are the ones who drive your cabs, who clean your rooms..."
A working-class romance with a social conscience.
Excellent (Rated R for sex content, disturbing images and language.
end of review.
For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.