Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tatou
Streaming on Netflix
In America, illegal immigration is now the cornerstone of a certain and ultimately deplorable type of partisan rhetoric, but in Stephen Frears’ 2002 masterpiece Dirty Pretty Things, London’s problems with illegal immigration (far greater than America’s struggles) are tackled in an unvarnished, brutal, and ultimately heart affirming fashion. The soul of this story is in the marvelously emotive eyes of its devastatingly handsome leading man, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Talk to Me, Children of Men). The soul of this story can be seen completely through Chiwetel’s fantastic, star-making performance.
The film revolves around Okwe (Chiwetel), an illegal African immigrant living in London and working as a taxi driver, a fancy hotel’s night front desk operator, and occasionally using his extensive medical knowledge to diagnose venereal diseases. Okwe was a doctor in Nigeria, we are told early in the film, but the details of his history and the reasons for his exile are kept a mystery until late in the story. Early in the film, he fixes a clogged toilet by reaching down its mouth and wrenches out a human heart. From here the plot moves swiftly, bringing the audience through a fascinating panorama of London’s immigrant communities.
Chiwetel’s performance, remarkable as it is, is only one fragment of the fantastic cast this film brings together. Audrey Tatou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) brings a complex ambivalence as Senay, a character who’s childish spirit and cheerful naiveté are clearly tempered with personal knowledge of the dark side of life. Sergi Lopez (Pan’s Labyrinth) brings a seedy sense of fun to his role as the alcoholic hotel manager and black market organ dealer nicknamed Sneaky. Benedict Wong, as Okwe’s closest friend and hospital crematorium manager, is unspeakably funny saying lines like “I don’t bring (organs) home with me, but I could, if I was weird.”
The thing that cannot be left unsaid about Dirty Pretty Things, despite its depressing subject matter, is how delightfully entertaining it is. In the middle of the film’s central intrigue, a wonderfully unspoken romance blossoms between the two leads (Ejiofor, Tatou), and by it the story is given wings. Stephen Frears (The Grifters, The Queen, Philomena) plays all these very powerful and conflicting emotions in perfect balance throughout the film, wrapping it all up beautifully and completely in its brisk hour and a half runtime.