The shadowy world of illegal immigrants living in Britain is dramatically presented in “Dirty Pretty Things,” an intelligent and extremely well-made romantic drama that tells an intriguing story with economy and insight. The small-scale film finds director Stephen Frears at the top of his form, and critical support should elevate this to the upper success level of indie distribution in most territories.
Set in a vibrant, multicultural London like Frears’ 1985 breakthrough success, “My Beautiful Launderette,” “Things” explores a group of desperate people who have come to Britain to improve their lives but who find the system makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to achieve their dreams without the most painful sacrifices.
These are the people — from Africa, Asia or the poorer countries of Europe — who perform the menial, demeaning work most Britons don’t want to do, but is nevertheless essential to make the system function.
The central character is Okwe, well played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria. He was a doctor in his home country before being forced to leave for reasons gradually explained during the course of Steven Knight’s well-constructed screenplay. Now he works by day as a cab driver and by night as the desk clerk at a midrange hotel.
Okwe keeps himself awake by chewing caffeine, and what little sleep he has is on the sofa in the tiny flat occupied by Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish girl who works as a maid at the hotel. Though on a temporary visa, Senay is not allowed by law to work, and regular checks by a couple of utterly insensitive and overbearing immigration officers keep her constantly on guard and in fear.
One night, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a hotel hooker, advises Okwe that there’s a problem in one of the rooms — which turns out to be a blocked toilet caused by a disembodied human heart.
This leads Okwe to discover the hotel is being used for a particularly nasty racket involving the surgical removal of valuable organs, mostly kidneys, from desperate immigrants in return for passports. The operations are apparently being carried out under the crudest and most unsanitary conditions, resulting in serious infections or worse for the victims.
The man behind this unsavory business is the hotel’s head receptionist, Juan (Sergi Lopez), known as Sneaky. Though not without a certain rancid charm, Sneaky’s complete disdain for humanity and his callous exploitation of the people around him make him a truly chilling villain.
The scene in which he brutally takes advantage of the desperation of the virginal Senay is a genuinely disturbing one, an indication Frears and Knight are pulling no punches in depicting some bitter truths in service of the film’s basic theme of the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. .
Though there are some brutally bleak moments in the film (including the preliminaries of a surgical operation that are not for the queasy), pic also has a sense of humor and, ultimately, an air of unforced optimism that is testimony to the skills of the writer and director, who manage to leaven their message without compromising its import.
As the very decent, kindly and resourceful Okwe, Ejiofor gives an assured and charming performance. In a very different role from her starring turn in “Amelie,” Tautou beautifully conveys the inner conflicts of a devout Muslim forced to set her beliefs aside in order to survive in a brutal world.
Lopez gives an accomplished performance as the odious Sneaky, while Okonedo is perhaps too good to be true as a whore with a heart. Other contributions from members of a large cast of unknowns are solid; with a Russian doorman and staff from all over the map, the hotel, called the Baltic, is seen as a kind of microcosm for Britain’s melting-pot society in the new millennium.
Chris Menges’ fluid and professional camerawork, much of it on location, is a major contribution to the success of this gritty film, and all craft contributions are sleek.