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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2002!
DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, 2002
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo, Sergi Lopez, Damon Younger
Two immigrants - Okwe, a kind-hearted Nigerian doctor, and Senay, a Turkish chambermaid - toil on the night-shift at a London hotel where dirty business like drug dealing and prostitution is commonplace. However, when Okwe finds a human heart in one of the toilets, he uncovers something far more sinister than just a common crime.
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At the time of the film's release at the end of 2002 the detention centre/refugee camp of Sangatte was heavily in the UK news due to it's recent closure. It had been the source of huge tension between London and Paris since opening in 1999 and attracting thousands of would-be asylum seekers, plus, naturally enough, the people traffickers who exploited their dreams of a new life.
Dirty Pretty Things may have been incredibly well timed, the screenplay perhaps even prescient, but the continuing issue of migration from war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan or Somalia or other countries like Mexico only serve to highlight the importance of such a film now as it was then. But this is no documentary – it's an urban drama/thriller wrapped around a tentative love story that does not shy away from addressing the central issue of this exploitation and degradation of frail and desperate individuals willing to do anything to gain that all-important passport. Everything has a price and people are willing to do anything to meet that price. In another director's hands this could have been a crass, melodramatic, even patronising action-thriller, but under Stephen Frears' (The Queen, The Grifters) intelligent and watchful eye it becomes a utterly absorbing, utterly charming tale about life in the twilight world for the innocent and not so innocent attempting to get by in the backstreets of a strange city.
It seems a well-known joke that all the cab drivers in New York are not indigenous and perhaps London is becoming no different. For the enigmatic, and of course illegal, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that's certainly how he makes his living by day. But on the night-shift he's also a porter at the Baltic Hotel. He's simply surviving. Surviving by chewing his way through an African root-herb to keep awake while holding down two jobs and grabbing sleep when he can on the couch of a Turkish co-worker and fellow asylum seeker Senay (Audrey Tatou) with her dreams of New York.
Things however soon take a dark turn when he finds a human heart clogging a toilet in one of the hotel rooms and realizes that something far more sinister is afoot. Together, between dodging thuggish immigration officials making dreaded surprise checks for illegal aliens, or unscrupulous sweatshop owners who are all too willing to take advantage of their position, they form a bond and discover a few things about themselves and the world going on around them while trying to avoid a situation that could result in Senay's deportation.
Director Frears captures a side of London hitherto unseen to the casual movie-goer. Beautifully shot by award-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields), the usual visual cliches are avoided and the film takes on a continent feel. Indeed, this London could be any number of European cities and perhaps that's the point. The squalid London we see through their eyes is almost unrecognisable and far removed from the gleaming promised land of immigrant fantasies. It's populated by an assortment of left-field characters from Okwe's friend Gou Yi (Benedict Wong), a porter in the hospital crematorium, to the Russian doorman, to Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a feisty prostitute who plies her trade in the hotel to 'Sneaky' Senor Juan (Sergi Lopez), another hotel employee with his own agenda
The two leads own the movie however. As has come to be the standard, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Inside Man, Children of Men, Red Belt) proves himself to be a class act as the principled doctor with the expressive dark eyes and handsome face. He's easily one of the UK's most versatile and charismatic performers to have broken internationally. The luminous Tatou (Priceless) also excels as the fragile 'innocent' in her first English-language movie role - imagine Amelie plucked out of her fantasy world and dumped into a harsh everyday reality.
There's some tension and nice touches of dark humour to help give balance to what could have been a very seedy and morbid affair about the traffic of human organs and it's compassionate, worthy and highly rewarding. Indeed it offers more heart and genuine emotion than 99% of many a year's output. And that it's grounded in dirty realism makes it all the more affecting.