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DIRTY PRETTY THINGS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi Lopez, Benedict Wong
Director: Stephen Frears
Audio: English 5.1, French 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Miramax
Features: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes featurette, trailers
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2004

"So I'm an evil man, right?  But I'm trying to save her life."

Film *** ½

Every day in our bustling cities, we walk by them, the unobserved denizens of the streets and side shops.  We work in our comfortable offices, we dine out at restaurants, and we stay overnight in fancy hotels.  Yet all about us, the tireless and invisible servants of our city are ever-present - the waitresses, the janitors, the cooks, the maids.  Middle-classed citizens may choose not to notice the migrant workers and minimal wage earners who often define this necessary niche, but such people fulfill an essential role in the daily function of our society.  As they depend on us, so do we depend on them in a commensal relationship that defines city-life existence.

Dirty Pretty Things is a film the explores the world of these people.  More specifically, it deals with the underworld of refugees and illegal immigrants.  They are the characters who choose the low, menial jobs which others would normally eschew.  They are, as one of the film's characters states it, "the people you never see.  We're the ones who drive your cabs, we clean your rooms."

The focal character of Dirty Pretty Things is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant from Nigeria.  Once a respected doctor in his native homeland, he now resigns himself to a poor existence in London as a cab driver and a night-time hotel receptionist. He is barely sustaining himself on his meager wages and his persistent lack of proper sleep.  Even so, Okwe maintains his compassion and his pride.  He is optimistic, as are so many such exiles, that someday he will reunite with his remaining family.  Until then, Okwe is just another invisible servant in London, tending to the needs to those who would forget his existence once he is beyond their sight.

Okwe shares an apartment with Senay (Audrey Tautou), herself a refugee from Turkey.  Their world now is a dark and urban one in which sweat shops, exploitation, and even prostitution are the norm.  They cannot hope for meaningful police or government assistance;  their only real support rests in one another.  Senay's asylum status forbids her to seek work in England, yet she does so, regardless.  Senay toils as a chambermaid at the same hotel in which Okwe works and allows him to stay at her apartment during the day while she works.  Generally though, Senay is suspicious of strangers, for she fears deportation if the ever-vigilant immigration officers discover her illegal employment.  She is even initially withdrawn and wary of Okwe, although they clearly possess a mutual respect and empathy for one another's lot in life.  Okwe is, essentially, the only true friend that Senay has, and their relationship, which commenced in precaution and slight wariness, soon develops into one of trust and interdependence.

The story to Dirty Pretty Things begins one day when Okwe, at work, receives a complaint that one of the hotel's toilets has over-flooded.  He goes to check out and possibly repair the toilet, only to discover that its water outflow has been plugged by a human heart.  The shocking nature of this discovery is never fully revealed, although in bringing the heart to his shady hotel boss, Señor Juan (Sergi Lopez), Okwe inadvertently uncovers a dark side of the hotel's business.  A clean and friendly residence by day, by night the hotel becomes not only a haven for discreet prostitution but also for a dangerous black market trade.  The heart is the key that opens up a Pandora's box upon which Okwe has unwittingly stumbled.

Okwe's sense of propriety and honor possess him to solve the mystery behind this human heart.  But, as in Chinatown or Blue Velvet, the further he delves into this mystery, the further he immerses himself within an impenetrable quagmire of immoral lives and desperate situations.  Soon, even the innocent Senay is caught in the ramifications of Okwe's actions, which ultimately exhume the manipulative hand of Señor Juan's exploitative nature.

To reveal any more of the plot would rob the film of some of its impact.  Suffice it to say that while the thrust of the film lies in the personal drama of the characters, it does still contain common elements of the thriller genre.  Overall, Dirty Pretty Things is a fairly dark and thought-provoking film.  Fans of Audrey Tautou's charmingly whimsical Amélie may be surprised with the bleak, pessimistic nature with her follow-up film, but the French actress reveals that, even at her relatively young age, she is already mature and talented in her craft.  Sergi Lopez, also a non-English speaker performing outside his native tongue, delivers his lines phonetically yet is so near-brilliant that he recalls the mannerisms and vital energy of a young Robert de Niro.  However, the film ultimately belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose subtle yet strong performance is at the very core of the film's resonance.

Dirty Pretty Things explores a seamier undercurrent to the pleasant, everyday bustle of city life.  It deals with the downtrodden reality of daily existence for many migrant workers.  If such lives seem dreary or filled with ceaseless struggles, they do serve as a precaution against the insensitive vice of human egoism.  We are all, after all, just one political upheaval or overwhelming natural disaster away from finding ourselves in similar situations as those depicted in this film.

Video ****

Dirty Pretty Things is presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  The film's color palette is occasionally garishly bright but mostly dark with a vaguely greenish hue that adds to the sickly feel of the film's general tone.  The video transfer rate averages a strong 7.5 Mbps.  Black levels are quite solid without image breakup, and the film's mild grain serves its bleak atmosphere quite well.

Audio *** ½

Dirty Pretty Things is presented in English 5.1 with optional English subtitles.  An alternate French track is also available.  In keeping with the multi-cultural nature of this film, the score contains a fair amount of ethnic music, too

Features * ½

The packaging for this film is somewhat misleading.  Despite the suggestive assertions of the cover art (not to mention the film's title), Dirty Pretty Things is not a sexually-charged, erotic thriller.  It is a serious drama that, while possessing some thriller elements, finds its strength in the well-developed relationship between Okwe and Senay and their daily struggle just to survive.

As for the actual bonus features, there is a sparse commentary by director Stephen Frears, best known in America for his work on Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters.  In the commentary, Frears occasionally discusses his feelings about the actors, the script, and the sets, but generally, he allows the film to speak for itself.  His comments, for the most part, aren't actually very interesting or enlightening.

The DVD also includes a brief behind-the-scenes featurette (6 min.) and trailers for Amélie (Audrey Tautou's breakthrough film), American Gun, Veronica Guerin (a biopic starring Cate Blanchett), and The Magdalene Sisters as well as a promo for Miramax films in general.

Summary:

Dirty Pretty Things is a window into an invisible world that exists all about us, even if we lack the attentiveness to perceive it.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou provide excellent performances in portraying the central sympathetic characters.

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