Friday, November 19, 2021

Finding the Beauty in “Dirty Pretty Things”

 Stephen Frears doesn’t take on simple projects. Working on both sides of the Atlantic, the British director seems to prefer stories with dense textures, in which people with clashing goals and social expectations are forced by circumstances to work together. One of my favorites, dating back to 1985, is My Beautiful Laundrette, which confronts racial and sexual taboos in contemporary working-class London. (The film was my introduction to Daniel Day-Lewis, and I won’t soon forget his portrayal of a gay street punk.) Five years later, with an American cast that introduced Annette Bening to the world, Frears explored the world of con artists and nabbed an Oscar nomination for The Grifters. Other notable Frears projects include Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen.

 Just recently I caught up with 2002’s Frears-directed Dirty Pretty Things, a powerful English film that’s easier to admire than to adore. It’s, among other things, a love story, but not in the way of some of the American films I’ve borrowed from my library of late (like, for instance, the Christmas-y Sandra Bullock vehicle, While You Were Sleeping). That odd, oxymoronic title says a lot:  there are pretty things, and pretty people, within Frears’ movie, but the world it depicts is full of dirt, blood, and shame.

 This is hardly the sedate London we Americans tend to think of: a place of royalty, ridiculous hats, tea and crumpets. Instead, Frears probes the underbelly of the multi-ethnic city, where immigrants are so desperate for money and for legal papers that they’ll do almost anything that’s asked of them. Chiwetel Ejiofor, worlds away from his role as Lola in 2005’s Kinky Boots, plays Okwe, a Nigerian doctor who, through a series of ugly political circumstances, now works around the clock as  both a cab driver and the night clerk at a London hotel. (He nibbles on khat, supplied at a local ethnic market stall, to stay awake.)  Okwe shares lodgings with Senay, a modest young Muslim room-cleaner (played, with surprising conviction, by Audrey Tatou of Amélie fame), who’s determined to hold onto her shaky status as a legal immigrant from Turkey. Both Okwe and Senay inevitably find themselves at the mercy of the hotel manager, a conniving Spaniard. He runs a racket providing passports and new identities for illegals who agree to pay a terrible price. What the undocumented are willing to risk for the sake of questionable legal papers is both grotesque and heart-breaking, and we believe every word of it.

 But by its conclusion  Dirty Pretty Things has become less a social polemic than a thriller. There are twists within twists, ensuring that the sinister Londoners we’ve seen in action will eventually get their comeuppance. Still, though Okwe and Senay overcome some serious hurdles and find their lives dramatically changing, we’re not at all sure by the final fadeout that they are finally on the right track. There’s no talk of a sequel, but I for one don’t want to let these characters go. They’re complex enough, especially after the choices they make in the course of this drama, to entitle us to wonder: What comes next?

 Dirty Pretty Things received some major accolades, climaxing in an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. (It was a great year for small films, and the ultimate winner in this category was Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.). Ejiofor, who despite his exotic name is London-born, won acclaim in  2013 for his leading role in 12 Years a Slave. But I hail him for his sad, angry, gentle, cowardly, brave portrayal of Okwe in this film.



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