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Thread: Dirty Pretty Things

  1. #1

    Dirty Pretty Things

    “Dirty Pretty Things” is a thriller interrupted by a love story. The immigrant Brit working class is sometimes depicted by this film’s director Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Laundrette”); the native Brits are often championed by Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”). In both cases, the kitchen sink realism does not fail to wake up middle-class Anglophiles like me.

    Nigerian doctor Okwe hides in London behind 2 jobs as cabbie and night porter. He lives with, but does not sleep with, Turkish chambermaid Senay (played by “Amelie’s” Audrey Tautou). Though they both hide from immigration officials, they cannot hide from their love. Okwe remains loyal to his Nigerian wife and daughter, and Senay has enough surviving to do to keep herself from Okwe.

    After he finds a human heart in a hotel room, his own heart is changed forever. He becomes aware of low-life trafficking in organs and aware that as a doctor he could relieve many pains by helping the transplant operations. When the bloody business hits home, Frears lets us suffer with Okwe while he decides if his conventional morality can adjust to the underworld’s impossible demands. The decision is not easy because his boss, Sneaky (the talented Sergi Lopez from “With a Friend like Harry”), regales him with the sophistry that crime like this is good for everyone involved (for instance, a doctor performing an operation rather than letting a hack do damage).

    My worldly-wise companion and I debated Okwe’s dilemma without a firm conclusion about the ethics of this end justifying the means. Frears caught us in the middle-class complacency of professionals who easily trip to London not even thinking about the workers who will attend to us--those shadow people we will never see, the disenfranchised a heartbeat away from jail or deportation. As for their love lives, who has time?

    The screenwriter, Steven Knight, created the original Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? “Dirty” is leagues away from that fantasy game show, but then again the immigrants of this film are just as much moved by the slim chance of finding a home somewhere in the world.

    It’s the love story between Okwe and Senay that entrances me. I can’t remember when I was so pleased by seeing the power of mutual respect turning into love and impossibility as I have been here. Of course, the consummate acting is a big help (You’ll completely forget airhead Amelie when you see Tautou out of Paris and in the streets of London).

    “Dirty Pretty Things” is an example of excellent filmmaking art without artifice.

    John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org on Thursdays at 8:01 pm and Fridays at 3:01 pm.

    © Copyright 2003, WCBE

  2. #2
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    Glossy troubling things

    Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things has been called a `thriller.' Well, there can be all sorts of thrillers, I guess – romantic thrillers, crime thrillers, spy thrillers, psychological thrillers, even philosophical thrillers – and this is a moral thriller with a romantic subtext. It's also been called an `urban political thriller.' Maybe we just don't have a word yet for what it is. Anyway clearly it's an expose of some of the outrages illegal immigrants face in the West -- as well as of one of the most shocking ways that poor and Third World people are exploited whether at home or abroad: fly-by-night, illegal, cruel, and dangerous organ removals for transplants. Here, in Frears' movie, created together with American TV writer Steve Knight, the poor illegals give kidneys to get passports and other falsified papers in a their desperate effort to make their lives more secure. Their lives are so uncertain and dangerous that for them every day is another page in a very gritty thriller.

    The action focuses on a London inn called The Baltic Hotel. It's a respectable enough hotel by the look of it. We don't see much beyond the movie's few characters who work there – the African doctor, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor); the young Turkish woman (Senay, Audrey Tautou), working as a maid who's temporarily putting Okwe up at her flat; the smug, despicable assistant hotel manager Sneaky, AKA Jose (Sergi Lopez), who stages the kidney removals; and Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), ironically named, since she's a whore who uses the hotel rooms to ply her trade. There are just a few others who populate the movie, notably Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), Okwe's Chinese chess opponent whom he sees in the mortuary-crematorium of a city hospital, and Ivan (Zlatko Buric) another hotel manager.

    The two moral poles are defined by Jose (Lopez) and Okwe. Jose tries to justify his behavior by saying that he's saving the people who get the organs and helping those who give them. The only trouble is that the operations are hack jobs and so the donors sometimes are left with gaping wounds and die or suffer horribly, or both; and we don't know what happens to the organs' recipients. Jose's self-justification only heightens our sense of his evil. Okwe is the other extreme: he chews leaves of qaat or some other natural stimulant to avoid sleeping and he is pure dedication – to survival, but also to helping others, because when he sees a duty, he does it. As an illegal, he finds that his fight to be good is staged constantly against a stacked deck.

    The action's touched off when Okwe finds a human heart clogging the toilet in room 515. This leads him to find out what‘s happening in this room, and half the movie is about Okwe's investigation of and eventual involvement in Jose‘s nefarious schemes. He stays with Senay, and that leads to the other half of the movie, a plot all about Senay's travails as an illegal trying to work. Ogwe is an illegal too, but he has the twin advantages of moral outrage and an M.D. Senay is a helpless, hapless virgin, possessed only of a determination to transfer to New York, or at least a dream of doing so.

    This is the essential material from which Dirty Pretty Things is put together. It's about ugliness, about being pulled down into the dirty things Senor Jose says people who come to hotels do – anonymously – at night, trying to make them look pretty in the morning. And it's about a social system that chews up the weak faster than Okwe chews his qaat.

    Towards the end Okwe, Juliette, and Senay seem to be participating in Jose's ugly game, and his client come to pick up the organ in the gloom of a parking garage asks them `Who are you? Why haven't I seen you before?'

    `Because we're the people you never see,' Okwe answers, beginning an astonishing and defiant little declaration that points the way to his and Senay's final triumph over Jose's traps and those set by the First World to punish people from poor countries for coming to the table.

    Frears' movie is graced by the good writing of Mr. Knight (one might fault his organizational skills slightly -- and there are some holes in the plot -- but his dialogue is vivid and intelligent) and the beautiful photography of Chris Menges (who provided the visuals for another kind of moral and political thriller the same year, Graham Greene's Quiet American as filmed by Philip Noyce). Beyond that, it explores fresh material but evokes other elegant studies of the sleazy underbelly of London like Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa. It's continually involving because of the good actors, especially the occasionally wan and saccharine but mostly lively and touching Audrey Tautou and the magnificent quiet anger of Chiwetel Ejiofor, as well as the irrepressible and always scary Sergi Lopez. Some of them are unfamiliar with English but you'd never notice. Benedict Wong also has a distinctive, arch, intelligent tone whenever he speaks. Even if all the foreign speakers render the English a little flavorless (except for Sophie Okonedo nobody seems to have grown up in London), that's part of the continually involving and suspenseful story.

    It's only later perhaps that one realizes the Baltic Hotel and Senay's sweatshop have little external life except what flickers on briefly when these characters are present; and Okwe's taxi driving experience is barely glimpsed. The backgrounds are sketchily drawn, and the two immigration officers are empty Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern stooges. This is far from the rich social palette of Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette or the sharply etched relationships of his The Grifters.

    But Frears' gift as a director is to do something different every time. Here he's conveying a social message through a thriller-esque melodrama. You have to decide if it works for you at this double task, but it should be obvious to everybody that, if this is some kind of agit-prop, it's nonetheless of a sophisticated (and visually exquisite) sort. Frears hits a different note every time he makes a movie, but he never hits a wrong one.

    This film opened in England late last year. It's about eight months late coming to the US.

    My Beautiful Laundrette certainly alludes to the working class, but many of its "immigrant" characters are really quite prosperous.

    Senay is certainly in love with Okwe, but Okwe isn't in love with Senay. It's clearly a one-sided love not a love story "between them."

    Dirty Pretty Things is a complex piece; its whole point is to make the audience see things aren't simple. But while it's partly a thriller and a romance, it is perhaps more than anything a dramatized social commentary with moral and philosophical implications, such as many serious documentaries have.
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  3. #3
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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    Anyway clearly it's an expose of some of the outrages illegal immigrants face in the West -- as well as of one of the most shocking ways that poor and Third World people are exploited whether at home or abroad

    The films effectively depicts the immigrants' milieu and the underground economy that develops out of their desperate struggle for freedom and survival. This expose and Chiwetel Ejiofor's well-modulated performance as the congenial Okwe anchor the film.

    The action's touched off when Okwe finds a human heart clogging the toilet in room 515. This leads him to find out what‘s happening in this room, and half the movie is about Okwe's investigation.

    The "heart clogging the toilet" bit is the lurid, incongruent hook that belongs in a movie of lesser pedigree. There is no logical explanation that I can provide for this incident. It smacks of insecurity on the part of a writer whose ability and experience cannot match the director's.

    `Because we're the people you never see,' Okwe answers, beginning an astonishing and defiant little declaration that points the way to his and Senay's final triumph.

    The script has its strengths. It clearly presents a moral dilemma for viewers to debate.

    It's only later perhaps that one realizes the Baltic Hotel and Senay's sweatshop have little external life except what flickers on briefly when these characters are present. The backgrounds are sketchily drawn, and the two immigration officers are empty Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern stooges. This is far from the rich social palette of Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette.

    I agree. I also object to Sergei Lopez's performance. The script gives Jose a certain nuance, a way to "explain away" his actions, to rationalize his schemes. But the performance is histrionic and over the top, as if he is dragging his sociopathic Harry character into this film.

    Senay is certainly in love with Okwe, but Okwe isn't in love with Senay. It's clearly a one-sided love not a love story "between them."

    The final two scenes convinced me Okwe loves Senay. A love that can only be glimpsed in his melancholic eyes. He keeps his feelings in check because he knew all along his dream was not to escape to New York but to return to Lagos, to a motherless daughter.

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    I agree that the heart incident is illogical. I can't see how it could happen. At least we are never told.

    I still don't see how Okwe can be in love with Senay. He may be fond of her. He hardly has time or energy left to fall in love with anybody in the film. And if he loved her, why would he go back to Africa and see her off to New York (another somewhat dubious event, her instant ability to go).

    But I think we agree that this is an intriguing film. In fact I believe it's one of the best of the year. I give it extra marks for dealing with important rarely treated subject matter in an entertaining, sophisticated way.

  5. #5
    I still believe the heart in the head is a metaphor for lives thrown away and refound, and of course for finding "love'' that has been discarded. You have to buy the fact that Frears, for all his realism, is being figurative.

    Then again, if cops were busting into the room to nab the body- parts barons, I guess they'd try to flush it.

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    The only way the heart would be separate from the rest of the body is if they were trying to sell a heart and that means a corpse--nice metaphor, but not in the plot.

  7. #7
    Chris--Are you saying there is not body part selling going on? I thought that's what they were doing, and the heart in the toilet was a botched operation or a quick disposal?

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    No, John, of course I'm not denying the sale of body parts, but nobody is selling hearts. "Sneaky" (Sergi Lopez) is selling kidneys for $10,000 and in return providing forged passports to the provider of the kidney. There is no explanation for the presence of a heart. It's a dubious "McGuffin," as Oscar Jubis noted earlier, and we are not the only two people in the world who have noticed this weakness in the plot.

    David Bradshaw in The Guardian also calls the heart a "metaphor," as you do. (See http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Guardian_review/0,4267,858665,00.html .) But the only trouble is that a metaphor has to have a convincing function on the literal level. The heart in the loo doesn't.

    Chris Knipp
    http://www.chrisknipp.com
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-20-2003 at 01:27 AM.

  9. #9
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    Originally posted by John DeSando
    I still believe the heart in the head is a metaphor for lives thrown away and refound
    At least we can now agree there's no "kitchen sink" realism going on here.
    Dirty Pretty Things is entertaining, contains an admirable performance by a relative newcomer and makes a stab at social commentary. I sense in all the straining to excuse glaring flaws a hunger for the type of exciting but intelligent, socially responsible thriller that's too rare nowadays. Something like The Third Man or Chinatown.

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