Movie of the Week: ‘Dirty Pretty Things’

“Dirty Pretty Things” (2002) – Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Senay (Audrey Tautou) are human beings without a country.  They are immigrants living in London but under a precarious environment. Okwe, from Nigeria, is here illegally, and Senay, from Turkey, works through the system to become a British citizen.  Although, that’s a lengthy process, and at the moment, she can’t rightfully take employment in England yet. 

Still, both need to make a living. 

They do, although under hidden circumstances, because every person of authority is a possible threat.  Unfortunately, their specific bosses are classic bullies and exercise their power by dangling deportation when it best serves them.  Our two protagonists cope with miserable existences, and something as basic as finding a safe place to live is problematic.  For Okwe anyway, he sleeps on Senay’s couch and can only stay at her apartment half the day.  She fears that the neighbors will talk and unforgiving government forces will swiftly convene, rip her friend off the couch, and send him back to Nigeria.

Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Senay (Audrey Tautou)

Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Steven Knight certainly construct a modern-day immigrant story, but they also weave a mystery thriller into Okwe’s and Senay’s days.  They both work menial jobs at fairly posh The Baltic Hotel, and during an otherwise ordinary shift, Okwe discovers a dreadful item in Room 510.  Someone shoved a human heart down the toilet, which is bizarre, to say the least.

Not only does this finding pique his curiosity, but with his former employment background (which will not be revealed here), he needs to solve this twisted puzzle. 

Ejiofor and Tautou are utterly convincing as this pair of friends/co-workers suffering through the dire straits of walking amongst the London populous but feeling like second-class citizens.  Their characters are perfectly fine, upstanding individuals, but society’s machinery repeatedly makes them feel less than.   Their struggle is real, as smiles are rare and anxiety is as ubiquitous as breathing. 

Okwe (Ejiofor)

Frears pays keen attention to color as most (or at least half) of the movie is set at night, but he shines striking cinematic hues of red and green in ordinary spaces.  The hotel looks inviting too, save the one room with the twisted find.  Meanwhile, Frears and the actors offer heaping servings of empathy for the leads throughout the picture with small and large moments.  Ejiofor and Tautou share enormous chemistry by keeping the on-screen romance at bay.  Okwe’s hidden past, the stresses of just surviving in 2002, and this organ-flushing enigma remain in the way. 

In supporting roles, Benedict Wong plays a most welcome friend to Okwe.  Sergi Lopez and Sophie Okonedo give critical performances at the hotel, where Juan (Lopez) – Okwe and Senay’s slimy manager – says, “They come to the hotels in the night and do dirty things, and in the morning, it’s our job to make things pretty again.”

Guo Yi (Benedict Wong)

For these not-yet-British citizens, this is their task, and they must do it invisibly. 

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Benedict Wong, Sophie Okonedo, and Sergi Lopez

Runtime: 97 minutes

Rated: R

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