Posted by Aaron West, 4/19/04
Dirty Pretty Things
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong
Running Time: 97 minutes
Everyone wants to root for the underdog, and the underdogs of Dirty Pretty Things would make Thomas Malphus spin
in his grave. They are the underbrush of society, "the people you do not see", the ones who clean up after you when you're gone. They are the people who strive not to get ahead, but to survive in a society that barely acknowledges their existence.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an illegal immigrant from Africa. In his homeland he was a distinguished doctor, but in the streets of London he has to resort to driving a cab by day, and manning the front desk of a swank hotel by night. He can only manage a few hours of sleep each day, spent on the couch at his friend Senay's flat. Senay (Audrey Tautou) is also an immigrant, coming from Turkey. She is legally allowed in the country, but illegally working as a maid in said swank motel. Okwe receives a report about a stopped up toilet, checks it out and to his surprise he pulls a human heart out of the commode. And so begins a slow paced, but easy to watch, character-driven suspense.
The movie is written very well, and it isn't too surprising that the Oscars recognized it with a Best Original Screenplay nomination last year, even if it is smaller than most films the Academy chooses. It unravels slowly, develops its characters well, and uses character conflict to create suspense. The dialog is mostly superb, and I especially enjoy the scenes with Guo Yi (Benedict Wong). His character helps establish Okwe's internal conflict, and also voices some of the film's theme.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance has received the most accolades, deservingly so. I was very impressed with his performance on my first viewing, but I also assumed the actor was an African immigrant himself, so the accent was his alone. I had seen some interviews later and found that he is an Anglo African, and speaks with a run-of-the-mill English accent. This, to me, raises the performance up a notch. I've experienced some Nigerian accents in my own life, and their accents seem to match Okwe to a tee. I also really like subtlety in acting, such as in my favorite performance of 2003, Sarsgaard's turn in Shattered Glass. Okwe speaks softly for most of the film, but acts with his expressions and looks. His performance is particularly effective during the rare moment when he does raise his voice, just like Sarsgaard. It is truly a shame that he was forgotten throughout most of the awards season.
Sergi Lopez plays Sneaky, the evil Capitalist appendage trade, and the only native English major character. Unlike more traditional suspense villains, Sneaky knows he is doing evil, but rationalizes that he ultimately does good, and in fact saves lives. Anyone who watches the film understands that his methods are what makes him wrong, but the ethical dilemma still does persist. His character draws extra strength simply because he has deluded himself into thinking his actions are for the greater good, which intensifies the conflict between the educated Okwe, whose medical training tells him (and us) otherwise.
Dirty Pretty Things was the first English speaking role for French star Audrey Tautou, and I think she performs well, better than average at least. She does labor through her dialog. I think it was a mistake to have her play a Turkish immigrant, because she cannot convey a genuine Turkish accent without mastering the film's language first. She is still a gifted actress, and she makes up for her shortcomings by acting well without words. Unfortunately her dialog does bring the film down a notch. I still look forward to seeing her tackle some more English speaking roles.
The camerawork has a dark, gritty feel, that matches the underground nature of the characters. Inside the grand hotel there are plenty of bright yellows and reds, but even these are muffled so that Okwe and the others don't seem out of place. Many of the scenes outside of the hotel have a bluish tint, which contributes to their seediness, and makes them seem almost otherworldly. Of course the lair of the sinister Mr. Sneaky is predictably green. Many of the shots remind me of Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, which is a testament as to how well Frears captured the slumlike images.
Thanks to some great acting and writing, Dirty Pretty Things deserves its title of indie darling of 2003.