DIRTY PRETTY THINGS
UK 2002 : Stephen Frears : 94-97 mins
Dirty Pretty Things is a watchable little urban thriller, based on an admirably ambitious but deeply flawed script by debutant screenwriter Steven Knight. It’s nevertheless extremely refreshing to see a British movie populated almost exclusively by characters from the ‘invisible’ big-city underclass of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants both legal and illegal. The film’s most original aspect is the inversion of the standard Brit-pic format whereby white protagonists dominate the action, with a sprinkling of ‘ethnic’ figures on the margins to add (quite literally) ‘local colour.’
Okwe (stage star Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an ‘illegal’ from Nigeria – though medically qualified, he works mornings and afternoons as a cab-driver and then as night-porter in an inner-London hotel. He shares a room with Senay, a 20-year-old Turkish girl Senay (Audrey Tautou) waiting for her visa application to be processed. She’s theoretically banned from taking any paid employment, but nevertheless works as a maid in Okwe’s hotel under the sleazy eye of manager Juan, aka Sneaky (Sergi Lopez). When Okwe finds a human heart blocking a room toilet late one night, his discovers the hotel is being used by Sneaky as a base for the trafficking of human organs – impoverished immigrants are offered an expertly forged UK passport in return for a kidney. And Senay is his next target.
Clocking in at a lean 90-odd minutes, Dirty Pretty Things offers a brisk tour of a London most visitors and residents are barely aware exists. The immigrants’ various degrees of desperation are convincingly conveyed, and Knight’s script makes some nimble points with even the most apparently throwaway bits of dialogue – struggling to make sense of her flat’s plumbing arrangements, Senay tells Okwe that “Everything here is connected to everything else!”
But Knight is much less successful when he’s laying his ‘morals’ out in more explicit terms: “We are the people you do not see,” Okwe sombrely intones at the end, going on to describe the various ways in which he and his fellow workers oil the wheels of the great metropolis. Described as an ‘angel’ at one point, Okwe is certainly an implausibly saintly figure – Knight seems incapable of creating ambiguous characters, only good guys (Okwe; Senay; Sophie Okonedo’s tart-with-a-heart Juliette) and villains (Sneaky; Senay’s lecherous sweatshop boss who forces her to perform sex acts on him) who end up as little more than puppets in his rather absurd and contrived form of modern melodrama: we’re a long way from Last Resort.
It’s especially disappointing to see Lopez, so delightfully subtle and ambiguous in Harry He’s Here To Help, stuck with such a two-dimensional ‘role’ as the oily, flashy, generally despicable Sneaky. Lopez does as well as can be expected – and his come-uppance is neat and satisfying. But the film’s scattering of effective scenes are invariably accompanied by nagging questions: like why the Machiavellian, well-named Sneaky acts in a conveniently stupid manner at a pivotal point in the climax. Like whether or not a 7-year-old girl could receive a kidney from a grown adult ‘donor’. Or why none of the hotel doors seem to have spyholes. Or why the title is never explained or referred to. Or how that heart got down the toilet in the first place.
And then there’s the casting of Tautou as Senay. There’s perhaps nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea of a French actress playing a Turkish woman (this is a film in which a character named Ivan, who wistfully mentions Moscow and generally behaves like a caricatured drink-sozzled randy Russian, is played by Croat veteran Zlatko Buric.) But when race is such a crucial aspect in the drama, it does seem more than a little odd to have Tautou, after Amelie probably the best-known and most unmistakeably Francaise of young Gallic actresses, putting on such a wobbly eastern-European accent and what looks suspiciously like face-darkening makeup to take the role.
In more creative directorial hands, these problems might not have seemed so glaring – but hack-for-hire Frears does the material no favours: his technically competent but old-fashioned, clich-ridden direction prevents the movie from establishing much in the way of suspense or atmosphere. He doesn’t seem to be able to do action sequences – the ‘raids’ by aggressive immigration officials are a complete mess, with intrusive sub-techno music, over-emphatic camerawork and frenetic editing by Chris Menges, Mick Audsley and Nathan Larson respectively. And while the film is reasonably competent on the technical front, it’s tempting to compare the surnames of those behind the camera (A) with those in front (B).
(A) Frears, Knight, Dudley, Larson, Menges, Audsley, Davis, Luczyc-Wyhowski, Holmes, Wilson, Dicks-Mireaux, Hill, Shircore, Gregory, Jayawardena, Myers, Booker, Dixon, Downes, Layton, Mann, McGrath, O’Malley, Oakley, Renfrew.
(B) Tautou, Lopez, Okonedo, Wong, Buric, Dosanjh, Aduramo, Karanj, Oparei, Kissoon, Hudaverdi, Bhattacharjee, D’Silva, Kouyate, Gouhad, Edwards, Hamill, Ali, Altin, Ecoffey, Mellinger, Michael, Scarborough. And, of course, Ejiofor – or rather “Eijofor”, as it’s been rather unforgivably mis-spelt on most British posters.
19th December, 2002
(seen 15th December: Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)
by Neil Young
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