With a title like “Dirty Pretty Things,” I was wondering what event would serve as the catalyst for the film directed by BAFTA winner, Stephen Frears (The Queen). The answer: a clogged up toilet, being attended to by a hotel porter named Okwe. He is portrayed in an impactful, yet understated, manner by BAFTA winning and Oscar nominated actor, Chiwetel Ejifor (12 Years a Slave). The problem, presented in the film, written by Stephen Knight (Eastern Promises), however, is no ordinary situation that can be fixed with a plunger. The source of the clog turns out to be, none other than a human heart. The question Okwe sets out to answer, in the 2002 film, which is parts crime, drama, and thriller, is how did the organ get there in the first place? (As an aside, Knight, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for the film).
Along the way, Okwe will learn that there is a criminal enterprise at work; a cog in its overall machine, is his superior, the smarmy hotel manager, nicknamed, Senor Sneaky (Sergi Lopez). His real name is Juan, and he is an immigrant. As it turns out, empty rooms of the hotel are being used as places where operations are performed to remove organs from illegal immigrants. Juan lines his pockets with a percentage of the money that is paid by the organ harvesters. Naturally, when Okwe comes to him regarding his gruesome find, Juan is dismissive of Okwe’s concern, as if the discovery is an everyday occurrence in the hotel business.
Ejifor’s character is a man who barely sleeps, due to working two jobs, cab driver by day, and as previously mentioned, a hotel porter in the evenings. He chews on the herb Khat to help stay awake. A former doctor in his home country of Nigeria, he has fled his native land for reasons that are not made known to the viewer until toward the end of the film. He is an illegal, and therefore, he can’t go to the authorities; not only because of his own status, but that of his co-worker, Senay. Played by Audrey Tautou (He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not), she is a hotel maid, an immigrant from Turkey, who dreams of one day going to live in New York City. Okwe rents her couch to sleep on, in the small flat she lives in. He wants to do the right thing regarding the discovery of the heart, but at the same time he wants to protect Senay. He has to be cautious, as he figures out an end game to his and Senay’s situation. She has recently become the target of two overzealous immigration agents, who are desperate to catch her in the act of, of all things, working. Apparently, her status, while she waits for an immigration visa, dictates that she not work for the first six months she is in the country.
The world of the illegal immigrant is what drives the film. Director Frears is showcasing the path they (the illegals) navigate. How, more often than not, they are treated not as human begins, but simply manpower, people who are worked hard and paid little, and sometimes, used by their employer’s for sexual gratification. They are the people who do the jobs most others don’t want to work at. They are the custodians, maids, kitchen help, and other jobs of that nature. With the exception of the hotel, most of the locations used in the film denote a hidden quality to them, which mirrors the life in hiding the illegal immigrant must lead. For example, locations include underground garages, back alleys, basements, and a hospital morgue. In essence, I feel the ultimate statement Frears and Knight were trying to make regarding the illegal immigrants’ situation, is that society couldn’t function without them. That their collective absence, if they were all suddenly to be deported, would cause many sectors of the economy to come to a grinding halt.
Rounding out the cast is Guo Yi (Benedict Wong); his character runs a hospital morgue. He appears to be one of Okwe’s only true friends, not just based on the games of chess they play, but because he puts himself, and his job, at risk, on several occasions to help Okwe out. Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) is a prostitute, that frequently uses the hotel to conduct business, but her character’s involvement, in the overall narrative flow of the film, goes beyond that of stereotypical role. She is the person who originally lets Okwe know that there is a problem in one of the rooms, that needs his immediate attention. There is also the hotel’s happy go lucky doorman, Ivan (Zlatko Buric), who is always looking to make a little extra money on the side.
Will Okwe and Senay find happiness at the end of the film? Does Okwe return to Nigeria and face his past? Will Senay be able to make it to her dream destination of New York City? What will happen to the organ trade at the hotel? Does it continue to flourish, or does it come crashing down upon those who seek to exploit the most vulnerable of society? In closing, “Dirty Pretty Things” features excellent performances from its ensemble cast, as well as an interesting story that should hold a viewer’s attention during the film’s 97 minute runtime.