December 1, 2003 -- “Dirty Pretty Things” is a harrowing tale about love, redemption and the attempt to retain dignity and morality amid the squallor, exploitation and marginalized existence of London's illegal alien population.
Director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity”) shows us a world of invisible people that we often take care not to see. They work as waitresses, janitors, cooks, taxi drivers, hotel maids. They wash clothes. They harvest crops. They toil in the unwanted jobs. They are an essential part of the economy of many industrialized countries in Europe and America, but people often pretend they don't exist. The story concentrates on two illegals, Senay (played by Audrey Tautou of “Amélíe”), a Turk who is seeking political asylum, and Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian fugitive.
Okwe maintains a precarious existence by working two jobs. Although his training is that of a doctor, he drives a cab by day and works as a hotel clerk at night. Senay works as a maid at the same hotel. The two share a small apartment but seldom see each other since they work different shifts. Both are wary of immigration officials. Senay fears she may be deported. Okwe could face a worse fate if he is incarcerated. Their employers take full advantage of their vulnerability. One of Senay's bosses forces her to perform sexual favors. Okwe's hotel boss, Juan, who goes by the nickname Sneaky (played by Sergi López), finds out about Okwe's medical background and tries to blackmail him into performing illegal surgery. Okwe's taxi boss also takes advantage of Okwe's medical expertise.
Although they are vulnerable, the illegal aliens are not powerless. They have some strength in numbers, and they have an effective network of peers. A prostitute (with a heart of gold, of course), Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) becomes a friend to Okwe and Senay. Okwe also has a chess-playing friend at a local morgue, Guo Yi, (played by Benedict Wong of “Spy Game”). Guo Yi, a Chinese immigrant, helps Okwe in many ways, including obtaining medical supplies for him. A pessimist, Guo Yi, copes with his marginal situation through his wry sense of humor. This diverse array of friends comes together at the end of the film to strike a blow for justice. More often than not, however, the illegals are desperate people who are treated unfairly. They are people devoid of identity or nationality. Their lives are so hard and bleak they are willing to do just about anything to make a better life for themselves. The vast majority of people who see this movie are much better off than these characters. People who see this movie ought to stop feeling sorry for themselves, because, compared to these characters, they don't really have anything to complain about.
Most people are about as honest as they can afford to be. Several of the poorer characters in this film are heroicly moral in the face of terrible pressure and terrible corruption. The acting in the film is excellent and the screenplay is exceptional. The story is full, but unforced. The character-driven plot flows naturally. The dark, seedy hotel rooms and sweatshop sets are convincing. They contribute much to the serious tone of this film. This is a side of London that most tourists never see. The pace of the film is a bit slow, but the characters are so interesting it is not hard to be patient. This film rates a B+.
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