Director Stephen Frears might not be a household name like Steven Spielberg, but he made a significant mark for himself in the late 80’s and early 90’s with inventive films such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons. More recently, he directed the well regarded but underappreciated movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s popular book, High Fidelity, but his latest film brings him back into the suspenseful realm of one of his most original films, The Grifters.
Okwe (pronounced Uk-way) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant in London, forced to work multiple jobs, including a night job working as front desk porter at a luxury hotel. One night, he makes a grizzly discovery in one of the hotel rooms, but he is unable to notify the authorities without giving away his illegal status. With the help of a prostitute and his timid Turkish roommate, Senay (Tautou), he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together only to discover a ring of criminals preying on the city’s immigrants. With this newfound knowledge, he must decide between right and wrong to keep his own past a secret.
Dirty Pretty Things‘ central premise puts an interesting spin on a classic urban legend, which won’t be revealed to not take away from the shock value. Beyond that, it’s an intimate exploration of the immigrant lifestyle in London, a world filled with secrets, favors and an “us vs. them” mentality. While struggling to earn a living, the city’s immigrants are exploited by their ruthless bosses-most of them foreigners themselves-who use what little power and knowledge they have to exert control over their employees. Although they are well aware of their situation, the repressed immigrants know that they hold an important role in keeping the system running smoothly. The indignities that Okwe and Senay are subjected to are difficult to watch, because Frears makes the viewer empathize with how desperate their lifestyle has made them. Fortunately, they have each other and their underlying, yet unrequited, romance is one of the most touching and rewarding aspects of the movie.
To reveal more of the intricacies or details of the plot would take away from the experience, but needless to say, it’s a brilliant piece of work, accompanied by a tight and solid script by Steven Knight, who is no less than one of the co-creators of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. Frears’ “less is more” credo, keeping the cast as small as possible while using mostly unknowns, works in a similar way as another Brit flick, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
The movie’s one known star is Audrey Tautou, who made a name for herself with her performance in the romantic fantasy, Amelie. Having made three lesser-known French films since her breakout film, Tautou once again proves her versatility as an actress by playing the naïve young Muslim woman, plagued by immigration agents and lecherous employers, but smitten with Okwe. Performing for the first time in English, Tautou uses a Turkish accent that might grate on the nerves if her character weren’t so adorable. Still, it’s probably one of Tautou’s more serious and dramatic roles, and it continues to show her range as an actress, proving that she’s well on her way to becoming one of France’s top exports. Although Tautou is better known, the film’s real star of the movie Chiwetel Ejiofor as Okwe, giving a breakout performance as a man tormented by his secret past and the things he must do to survive. Ejiofor produces the type of powerful but low-key performance that makes the viewer want things to go well for him, and he creates a role as sympathetic and memorable as Guy Pearce in Memento or Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later.
The supporting cast beautifully embellishes these two great performances, from Zlatko Buric’s jovial doorman Ivan to Sergi Lopez’s king-of-slime hotel manager, appropriately nicknamed “Sneaky”. Sophie Okonedo and Benedict Wong add some much needed levity as Okwe’s closest allies while uncovering the hotel’s secrets. The relationship between these six characters drives the movie, and while the outcome is a predictable and a possible letdown for anyone expecting an entirely happy ending, it’s forgivable because at least justice seems to have prevailed.
Frears doesn’t glorify London by adding the type of visual glitter that one might see in a typical Hollywood film. Instead, he gives it a stark and dingy look that personifies the viewpoint of the immigrants. The ambient score perfectly sets the suspenseful mood of the movie without ever getting in the way, and likewise, the camerawork is so transparent that it’s very easy to forget you’re watching a movie as you’re transplanted into these people’s lives.
Dirty Pretty Things shows what can be done with the perfect combination of storytelling, filmmaking and acting. The intriguing plot and memorable performances all-around make it one of the best movies of the year, joining the list of inventive and original thrillers that have redefined the genre. While the movie’s expose of these very real lives is not always a pleasant experience, it is an one that will not soon be forgotten.
Dirty Pretty Things opened in New York and Los Angeles last week and will open in other cities across the country over the next few months.