How do you put a character in touch with a cross-section of a society – and especially the hidden underbelly of that society? This is a challenge for any scriptwriter.
At the start of Dirty Pretty Things, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stands at London airport, trying to hustle up a ride for his cab. But cab driving is a tired old plot device. Fortunately, it is only Okwe's day job, and the film dwells little on it.
By night, Okwe is a desk clerk in a fairly sleazy hotel. This is where the story starts happening. As she breezes out, a prostitute, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), lets Okwe know that one of the rooms needs instant attention. Okwe finds a blocked toilet that hides a dirty secret: a recently removed human heart.
Dirty Pretty Things is about a gruesome, subterranean social issue: the illegal trade in human organs. But before getting to that topic, director Stephen Frears (The Grifters ) and writer Steven Knight skilfully sketch a whole network of relationships and lifestyles that go under the radar of polite mainstream Britain.
Okwe, for example, shares a small apartment with Senay (Audrey Tatou). He is an illegal immigrant with a troubled past, and she is a Turkish asylum seeker. Both of them need to hide from the non-too-compassionate authorities.
One aspect of Okwe's past that is a surprise to most who encounter him is that he is a doctor. And this, too, serves to put him in intimate contact with the plight of other marginals – especially once his unlovely hotel boss, Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), twigs to the criminal possibilities.
This film is not well served by marketing that touts it as a thriller. The closest it gets to generic thrills is its running homage to Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead (1999) – since Okwe, like Nicolas Cage in that movie, must keep himself awake twenty-four hours a day. And in both films, the edgy, hallucinatory state created in the hero blends, paradoxically, with an almost saintly devotion to the poor and wounded of the world.
This is the best film Frears has made since Liam (2001), in no small part due to Knight's brilliant script. In interviews, Frears routinely sneers at having any lofty, artistic ambitions as an auteur. But what he brings to a good script is the superb sense of craft he learnt, long ago, under the tutelage of his British compatriot Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success ).
Part of Frears' gift is his ability to blend very diverse actors, from well-known faces like Tatou to relative newcomers. He likes to cast against type and play against convention. Ejiofor is a revelation as Okwe – Frears gives him an unforgettable and heartbreaking final shot – but even the smallest roles ring true.
What is so absorbing about Dirty Pretty Things is the way it combines a headlong momentum that puts most Hollywood action films to shame with small details that are unfailingly authentic and telling. By, for the most part, avoiding plot clichés and facile sermonising, Frears and Knight create a mosaic of lives-in-collision that is ultimately very moving.
© Adrian Martin June 2004