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Critical Projection

Dirty Pretty Things: A Threatening Refuge
Posted by Jules Brenner on Aug 1, 2003 - 1:10:00 PM

Director: Stephen Frears
Producer(s): Tracey Seaward, Robert Jones
Screenwriter(s): Steven Knight
Stars: Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo Cinematographer: Chris Menges
MPAA Rating: R
Release: June 18, 2003 (U.S.)
Running time: 94 Minutes
LOS ANGELES—In a season of competing big budget blockbusters, Stephen Frears, a literate film director if there ever was one, graces our movie screens with a fine, if depressing, character thriller. His film has everything the discerning moviegoer might look for: engrossing story, outstanding cast, incisive directing, subtle development, and the right length. If it were a novel it could do no better in focusing on what it might be like to be an immigrant seeking refuge in the safe harbor of a multicultural society where secrecy is currency.


Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an articulate cab driver soliciting fares at a London airport. But, then, when his shift ends, he takes a chew of khat to keep him awake and becomes a hotel desk clerk and concierge. No matter the job, he's a virtually sleepless man with more capability than his occupations would suggest.
Photo Taken By Rachelle Sadler

At the hotel, when he's informed by resident prostitute Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) that there's been trouble in the room she just worked in, Okwe investigates. He finds the toilet plugged up and proceeds to extract the blockage, which he recognizes as a human brain. Driven by a sense of responsibility, he brings it to hotel owner-manager Juan (Sergi Lopez). At Okwe's suggestion that the police be notified, Juan calls them and hands the phone to Okwe to report the discovery. Okwe sees the personal ramifications of doing so, and drops the phone.

But, now, Juan's scheming mind is wondering how his humble, tight-lipped employee would know a human brain when he sees one. Perceiving an opportunity to gain leverage over the man, he proceeds to investigate the enigmatic desk clerk, and learns that Okwe is in fact a doctor from Legos, Africa... in hiding.

Hiding with Okwe is fellow employee, chambermaid Senay (Audrey Tautou) who is trying to avoid discovery by the authorities for being employed against the dictates of her resident status. Living together as a matter of financial pragmatism, there is some growing emotional attachment between them, as well. Senay, as a Muslim and a single woman, is a virgin, and Okwe has no designs on changing this status even as he protects his beautiful roommate against discovery by pursuing immigration cops.

As a desk clerk, the activities in the hotel revolve around him—by phone, by TV monitor, by lobby activity. Trying hard to draw no attention to himself, he's the paragon of silent discretion even when strange and sinister patterns of activity roil around him. But discretion doesn't stop him from trying to learn what's going on, and he discovers hints of a sordid trade in live kidneys for transplants being run within the hotel. The clandestine operation is confirmed when Juan negotiates for the use of his highly prized medical skill.

As near discovery forces Senay to endure humiliations, and as their situations grow more desperate, the pair face solutions that compromise deep-seated values which neither can violate. In that dilemma lies the heart of the drama. And, throughout their darkening ordeal, their mutual regard persists as more than the fellowship of fugitives.

The overall effect of the storytelling is the steady unveiling of what life is like in the shadows of the legal system. Through these characters, we get an unflinching peek into the sink of depravity that lurks within the general population. A major contribution to the sick feeling we get from what screenwriter Steve Knight's powerful and crisply structured script reveals is its terrifying plausibility.

Those who thought Audrey Tautou was "Amelie" will see, in the opposite extreme she creates here, the full power of creative acting. The hunted, desperate Senay is on the opposite earth tilt from the Audrey Hepburnish charmer with the springy iridescence of that young lady on the tail of a lover. Here, speaking English with a Turkish accent, you get so wrapped up in her struggle for survival that you tend to forget the world class beauty she manifests.

But, that's hardly all this artful tale offers in acting brilliance. Chiwetel Ejiofor's measured exposure of a very complex character keeps us gripped by the power of the restraint. Allowing the story to "do its work", the truth of his identity emerges from what dealing with immorality on foreign soil forces upon his man of undoubtable decency. This native of England with Nigerian parents (who helped him with his accent) has only done a handful of films before, notably as Ensign Covey in "Amistad" (1997), but his introspective work here should put him on a journey of wider recognition.

Both as written and as portrayed, the villain of the piece, Juan, is another discovery of sizable proportions. How astutely Spaniard Sergi Lopez applies smiling geniality as his character exploits people in extremity. His effective restraint builds a criminal who might well make you fear him more than a mob hit man in your living room. Even as you enjoy his style, employing no physical threat, his methods of coercion amount to pure mental violence.

No cast member is a throwaway part nor is any character less than accurately realized. Sophie Okonedo as prostitute Juliette adds a nice flourish of street smart whimsy to the dark corridors of the somber tale. Guo Yi gives us our only sigh of relief in his portrayal of Benedict Wong, Okwe's only reliable confidante and enabler.

Stephen Frears established himself as a director of high literary standards and a fine taste for meaningful themes with his 1990 hit, The Grifters. Since then, he has strayed, exploring not only a world of subjects in different countries but the gamut of budgets and casts to fit. He's gone from the modest exploration of Irish indoctrination, "Liam", to the politically agitating "My Beautiful Laundrette", to the more mainstream over-hip mishmash of "High Fidelity", and to the rare Julia Roberts' flop of "Mary Rielly".

His choice of cinematographer Chris Menges, who won the 1984 Academy Award for his brilliantly photographed "The Killing Fields", steps away from his directing duties to draw a modeled range of dark tones in textured support of these dire story themes.

If budgets and box office weren't dominating requirements, one could predict nominations in all categories. Unfortunately, though, this is a thriller that is destined to garner more buzz on the critical side of success than in box office traffic. Considering what has been filling theaters this year so far, it's a truly welcome arrival. For those discerning moviegoers mentioned earlier, it's a must-see!

Photo Taken by Rachelle Sadler

Jules Brenner has reviewed over 80 films a year since 2000.

Check out the oldest and latest at his web site where he writes under the pen name, The Filmiliar Cineaste:

"Seabiscuit" (Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges)
"Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" (Angelina Jolie)
"Pirates of the Caribbean" (Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom)
"Swimming Pool" (Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier)
"Bad Boys II" (Will Smith, Martin Lawrence)
"Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" (Robert Carlyle)
"The Magdalene Sisters" (Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff) 
"Terminator 3" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) 
"The Hulk" (Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly) 
"Hollywood Homicide" (Harrison Ford, Josh Hartnett)
"Bruce Almighty" (Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, J. Anniston) 
"The Hard Word" (Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths) 
"The Matrix Reloaded" (Keanu Reeves, Carrie Anne-Moss) 
"Whale Rider"(Keisha Castle-Hughes) 
"Respiro" (Valeria Golino, Vincenzo Amato) 
"A Mighty Wind" (Bob Balaban, Catherine O'Hara)


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