London’s Shadow People

The immigrant experience takes on sinister, mysterious undertones in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things.”

“We are the people you do not see — the ones who clean your rooms and drive your cabs,” says one character in “Dirty Pretty Things.” His comments are starkly understated but true, underscoring the awful, often terrifying conditions in which these immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe find themselves. The hero of “Dirty Pretty Things,” Nigerian-born Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is one of those nether-dwellers. Although a doctor in his home country, in London Okwe splits his sleep-deprived days and nights between driving a cab and working as a hotel clerk. His friend and possible love-interest Senay (button-eyed beauty Audrey Tautou, of “Amélie” fame), a political refugee from Turkey, is a maid in the same hotel.

And what better a setting than a hotel to depict the marked difference of the “haves” with the “have-nots.” Okwe, Senay and a handful of other illegals spend their days in the not-for-public-consumption hallways and offices behind the carpeted prettiness of the guest rooms. Such a shadow-world is ripe for a desperate scheme, and most definitely, there’s one afoot.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all at the movies, you sit transfixed as Okwe tries to unclog the toilet in Room 510. Frears’ camera moves from Okwe’s face to the object of his effort. With each alternating shot, the camera brings us closer and closer to seeing what nasty object Okwe has his hands on. Then there it is … in his hands … dripping wet … but still fresh and pink … a human heart.

This vivid image kicks off the movie’s intricate plot (and that’s all I’m going to tell you about it!) as well as its intriguing mix of genres. Blending these different elements as easily as the international cast blends accents, “Dirty Pretty Things” is part atmospheric thriller, part black comedy and part social commentary. But what it’s not, however, is for the faint of heart. Trust me, a few scenes involving major surgery done in that infamous Room 510 will cause more than dizziness in some viewers.

Like he did in “Laundrette,” Frears here creates a community of outsiders struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar and unfriendly London. And the hotel at the heart of “Dirty Pretty Things” seems to take on a life of its own, where its dark halls enclose a strange new nation where the usual rules don’t apply and terrible deeds take place in exchange for promises of a way out. Tautou, vulnerable and lovely, dreams of a city she’s never seen: New York, where in the winter, she tells Okwe, “they put lights in the trees.” The eerie outdoor lights of London have a beauty of their own, but Senay and Okwe can’t see that far ahead. They’re far too busy looking over their shoulders, fearful of the demons, both real and imagined, that might be closing in. **** S


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