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Dirty Pretty Things   A

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2002 (USA: 2003)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steve Knight
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric.

Review by Rob Vaux

Someone once colloquially referred to them as "the Midnight People" -- the forgotten souls who move invisibly through our lives. They live between the cracks of society, off the grid and under the radar. They dispense quarters at the local laundromat or sweep floors at the office when the sun goes down. We see them and perhaps acknowledge their presence, but we never really think about who they are. Their universe forms the crux of Stephen Frears' remarkable new thriller Dirty Pretty Things, a sharp, gripping look at what happens after the rest of us have paid the check and gone home.

The setting is London, though it might be any large city in the western world. Frears and DP Chris Menges craft a seamy landscape of late-night work shifts and forgotten back rooms, centering on a strangely modern hotel whose employees move to a rhythm unseen by their clients. Quiet Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, the kind-eyed translator from Amistad) works the front desk, a job he juggles with driving a cab by day. He shares a flat with Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish chambermaid with brittle dreams about escaping to New York. The doorman Ivan (Zlatko Buric) ushers in weary travelers and leering prostitutes with the same oily smile, while one of those same prostitutes (Sophie Okonedo) treats her career like some kind of cosmic prank. Then there's Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), grade-A Eurotrash whose expensive car suggests a source of income other than his hotel manager's check. All of them are playing roles, showing blank faces to guests who treat them like parts of the architecture. It's a purgatorial existence, disconnected from everything and everyone around them. But in most cases, their continued survival demands it. They have pasts from which to hide, and hope depends on staying two steps ahead of their secrets.

Then one of those secrets comes floating to the surface in the form of a human heart, which Okwe dislodges from the toilet of a recently vacated room. He can't go to the authorities because he has no work visa, and deportation means death (his native Nigeria has a bone to pick). Neither can he pretend it doesn't exist as Sneaky rather menacingly advises. Whoever left that heart was not a casual visitor, and may know of Okwe's discovery, placing him in a wicked bind. How do you protect yourself if the society you live in doesn't know you exist?

Frears develops this dilemma with an unusually warm and humanistic approach, mixing the tension with gentle social comedy. There is a conspiracy, of course, with dark designs on Okwe and his companions, but rather than focus on the immediacy of the threat, Frears pulls back to demonstrate the tenuous state of their existence as a whole. Danger comes not at the hands of sinister thugs, but at the prospect of being identified, pinned down, and thrown to whatever fate they're trying to flee. The lack of traditional solutions to their problems adds a fresh twist to the standard thriller mold. Moments of humor (aided by winning performances from the entire cast) blend expertly with the more serious elements, giving texture to the plot without diminishing it.

Dirty Pretty Things truly soars, however, in its depiction of the ambient hum of contemporary life. When you check in to a hotel room, do you ever wonder what happened there the night before? During cab rides, have you ever thought about the other passengers the driver watched through his rearview mirror? With expert craftsmanship and quiet wit, Frears forces us to contemplate these questions, drawing attention to the unseen threads which interconnect us, and the people whose silent presence ensures that we never need to think about them. Other films (like Scorsese's After Hours) have dealt with the same topic, but never with as much understanding or compassion as we see here. Dirty Pretty Things truly takes us to another world, one as familiar as our own doorstep and yet as alien as the dark side of the moon. The people who live there are not so different from us; only a bad break or two keeps us from joining their ranks. Frears delivers his message not with condescension or exploitation, but with a balanced, reverent style that becomes its own secret joy. The refreshing subject alone makes Dirty Pretty Things an excellent thriller; the thoughtful approach makes it one of the best films of the year.

Review published 07.16.2003.

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