Last month this film gave a resounding kick-start to the London film festival: a very entertaining, intelligent thriller from director Stephen Frears and scripted by Stephen Knight, the prolific TV writer who brought us, of all things, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? On second viewing it looks every bit as bright, though I think describing it as a film about asylum seekers makes it sound more earnest and less enjoyable than it really is - though this theme is what gives the film its generosity of spirit and also its intriguingly unlocatable tone. Knight's unusual script is an engrossing noir romance, couched in the language of both thriller and urban myth, and brought to life by three actors whose expertise is a joy to watch: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou and Sergi Lopez.
Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian "illegal" in London, hotel-portering by night, minicabbing by day, and all the time chewing dodgy herbal leaves to keep himself alert. Audrey Tautou is Senay, a young Turkish woman, also illegal, earning a pittance as a maid in the hotel where Okwe works, and the incomparably sinister Sergi Lopez is the hotel manager, who tells his employees that London hotels are places where strangers come to keep secrets, and wise people look the other way.
One morning, Okwe is brusquely instructed to clean up a room where a guest has been with a prostitute, and has to unblock a lavatory overflowing with blood - a gripping scene in which nausea gives way to astonishment, then fear as Okwe realises that the obstruction is caused by a human heart. That's a metaphor which encapsulates the film's unusual willingness to function both as horror story and love story. It's all heart.
From here, a creepy network of control is revealed, which relies on keeping asylum seekers and immigrants, desperate for an EU passport, real or fake, in a state of mendicant servility and fear. Owke and Senay have only each other to rely on; they begin the movie in a sweetly innocent brother-and-sister set-up, and their relationship deepens into a gallant affaire de coeur as Okwe tries to protect Senay from the grisly forces that encircle them both.
Frears' film has been criticised as being too broad-brush. I confess that sometimes Tautou's Turkish accent does make her sound like Alan Partridge's girlfriend Sonia, and it's true that the hotel's resident lovable tart, played by Sophie Okonedo, is a touch sentimentally conceived - though Okonedo has a nice comic touch which saves Okwe's final speech about London's invisible underclass from being too heavy-handed. Frears always keeps his drama on the right side of plausibility, if only by a whisker. With its caper-ish elements, it has more sugar in the mix than movies it resembles, like Mona Lisa, My Son the Fanatic or Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort. Yet Dirty Pretty Things has serious things to say about swinging 21st-century London - how it is "multicultural" chiefly in exploiting immigrant labour for the service economy.
Dirty Pretty Things is in some cinemas with Journey Man, an excellent short on a similar theme from the film-maker Dictynna Hood. A terrified stowaway from Sierra Leone, Mohammed (Usifu Jalloh) escapes from detention in Port Talbot and is taken in by a kindly pub landlady played by Ruth Madoc. A film with marvellous delicacy, humanity and charm.
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Dirty Pretty Things is a 2003 film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Steven Knight about an illegal Nigerian immigrant and doctor, Okwe, in London running from his past, who becomes involved with the underground organ business after meeting another immigrant named Senay. A cab driver by day and hotel receptionist by night, Okwe was a doctor in Nigeria before being forced to flee after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. The film was critically acclaimed for its cinematography, well-paced plot, and how it illuminated the exploitation illegal immigrants undergo.
Okwe leads a dangerous double life as an illegal immigrant, constantly on the lookout for the immigration police. However, he does not expect to find trouble in the manager of his hotel, Juan, who secretly runs an operation where immigrants swap one of their kidneys for a forged passport. After Senay, the woman whose couch he sleeps on, is accosted by the immigration officials, Okwe is forced to perform kidney surgery on her to save her from the advances of Juan, who sexually assaulted and exploited her. After Juan gives Senay and Okwe passports, they drug and remove his kidney in an ironic act of resolution, and go their separate ways- Okwe back to Nigeria for his young daughter, and Senay to New York City to start an entirely new life. The last shot of the movie captures their mouthed words of "I love you" before they part ways.
The film demonstrates the harsh brutality of a life as an illegal immigrant, the characters Okwe and Senay representing the hundreds, thousands of illegal immigrants who are exploited and abused in modern day society. The diverse cast of characters from various ethnicities reveals the verity of the experiences portrayed. The film's tone ranges from psychological, to thriller, and even unlikely love story.
Dirty Pretty Things was extremely well-received at both the box office and critics' reviews, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor playing Okwe, winnng the 2003 British Independent Film Award for Best Actor. As well, the film itself also won a "Best Independent British Film" in 2003. Dirty Little Things is today considered an indie classic.
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