Early in Stephen Frears’ perversely buoyant melodrama Dirty Pretty Things (Miramax), a Nigerian taxi driver and illegal immigrant named Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks his boss for a better route, and in response the man ushers him furtively into the back room, pulls down his trousers, and presents his penis. It’s not precisely what we think: The boss has the clap, and Okwe turns out to have been a doctor in Nigeria. But the subtext is the same as if the boss had demanded a blow job: To get ahead, you must service my penis.
In many underclass crime melodramas you get a sense that the filmmaker is lifting up the rock to show you all the parasites scurrying underneath, but the characters in Dirty Pretty Things are servicing in plain sight. They’re housemaids, busboys, taxi drivers, and prostitutes. Frears, whose breakthrough was the Hanif-Kureishi-scripted My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), evinces the same sociological fascination here. Some of these immigrants to Great Britain are illegals, some are waiting for visas but forbidden to earn any money in the meantime. And there’s a whole network of employers—many recent immigrants themselves—who exploit them: for labor, for sexual favors, even, as it turns out, for their organs. The screenwriter, Steven Knight, is an English TV veteran who helped to create the original Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, and the grasping/yearning quality of that infamous title is in every scene: The film is, Who Wants To Be a Citizen—and What Part of Your Anatomy Will You Give Up?
A revered English stage actor of Nigerian-immigrant parents, Chiwetel Ejiofor should become a household name—assuming we can learn to pronounce it. (It sounds something like, “Chew-ah-tell Edge-ee-oh-for.”) He has a face that registers everything, even when he’s impassive—a way of seeming both extraordinarily tense and extraordinarily centered. His Okwe works afternoons and evenings as a cabdriver and nights as the desk porter of a small London hotel. In between he sleeps—or tries to—on the sofa of a chambermaid, a Turkish woman named Senay, played by Audrey Tatou of Amélie, who’s constantly harassed by immigration agents. Tatou isn’t the first person you’d think to cast as a Turkish immigrant. But she’s affecting here: She has to speak not only in English but in Turkish-accented English, and it gives her an awkwardness that cuts through some of that icky gamine shtick that made her a star.
Okwe is stuck, trying just to survive—sleeplessly—in a world he can’t fully enter. He chews qaat to stay alert and mellow and plays long games of chess with his only real friend, a sardonic Chinese immigrant (Benedict Wong) who works in a morgue in the subbasement of a hospital. What happens next is like a hellish hallucination. While working at the hotel, he’s tipped off by an exiting prostitute that there’s something in one of the rooms he should check out. He finds a clogged toilet—with a human heart inside it. Okwe brings his grisly discovery to a manager (also an immigrant) who goes by the name of Sneaky and is played with unsavory relish by Sergi López. As you’d expect, Sneaky says it’s best that Okwe not concern himself—unless he wants to talk to the police himself. But how can Okwe stay silent in the face of his growing awareness that something monstrous is going on—something that threatens to swallow the desperate Senay?
Okwe is probably too much of a superhero to be true, and the movie has a touch of Paul Mazursky’s sentimental Moscow on the Hudson (1984) in its depiction of immigrants from disparate cultures bonding to battle injustice. But if Dirty Pretty Things is more pretty than dirty, its prettiness is charged with guerrilla wit. Frears has a light touch here—as glancing yet precise as in the English TV dramas he made before My Beautiful Laundrette. The movies takes place in back corridors, garages, alleyways, and sub-subbasements, and Frears and his great cinematographer, Chris Menges, give the subterranean settings a macabre luster. When Okwe and his Chinese friend play chess in the morgue, they’re surrounded by gurneys that are sometimes sterile and sometimes … not. The whole movie is like that: gleaming, but with a whiff of the charnel house. Dirty Pretty Things doesn’t quite cut to the bone, but it gets as far as a couple of vital organs.