Leave it to Stephen Frears to make one of the boldest films of the year and wrap its wounded, oozing tissue in gauzy subtlety. Throwing back to his earliest, most socially conscious work (like My Beautiful Laundrette), Frears takes a skillfully tense script by Steve Knight and brings it to unsettling life. Leaning toward the literary, the story acknowledges Greek myths and channels the incisive melodrama of Dickens' squalid London.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian illegal navigating the labyrinth of the London underworld. Time and tide don't wait for this man; he's keeping a prodigious number of balls in the air, from his jobs as a hotel desk porter and taxi driver (among others) to an ongoing chess match with a Chinese morgue attendant buddy. Okwe doesn't sleep much, but when he does, it's on the couch of a Turkish chambermaid named Senay (Audrey Tautou of Amélie); for her trouble, she's rewarded by invasive visits from the immigration authorities.
Dirty Pretty Things is at its best delineating the absurdities of immigrant life lost in the London rat race. But Knight and Frears have an even greater fish to fry in the sensational organ trade. The pivotal ethical test for the characters, the sinister but convincingly defended practice of trading passports for organs provides initial mystery and the queasy motion of the film's second half.
Sergi López, the madman of With a Friend Like Harry... plays the Dickensian villain--a middle-manager--with a perpetual smirk; it's a lively if actorly performance that puts one in mind of the early Bob Hoskins. Lopez's Juan (a.k.a. "Sneaky") also gets the key line of dialogue: "The hotel business is about strangers. They come in the night to do dirty things. In the morning, it's our job to make them pretty again."
The pretty veneer to London's exploitative underbelly recurs as a theme in this largely sophisticated look at an underclass presumed to be unsophisticated. The cab driver and desk porter is, in fact, whip-smart and was a doctor in Nigeria. Quietly heroic, Okwe resembles the remark "There is nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man"; it would be a mistake for himself or others to underestimate the trouble with virtue or, indeed, defensive guile. Meanwhile, Senay's virgin vulnerability has yet to harden, and she finds herself effectively backed into abusing her sexuality. The tentative relationship between the two characters begins as sweet and turns scary before it can return, hesitantly, to some resolution.
Frears's multicultural casting pans out nicely, with Tautou and Lopez just two of a largely non-English-speaking supporting cast. Though the visuals by the wonderful cinematographer and camera operator Chris Menges (The Mission) are mostly muted and sickly and the film's tone mostly serious, Frears cannot suppress a playful streak of dark humor, including the appropriate toss-off about Tautou's character "She look like a film star."
When the story takes a turn to the melodramatic, the dialogue becomes pedantic, but until then, the words carry rare snap, making for a sharply observed slice of underworld life. Ejiofor--the film's ever-wary, deadpan center--is exceptional, and the eternally wounded Tautou, offset intriguingly by her broken English, connects deeply. Menges' camera slides in to both more closely as the screws turn, amplifying their effects. Okwe's self-assertive explanation that he and his friends are "the people you don't see" makes the best case for this uneven but potently thoughtful film about crossing dangerous, Stygian borders, guarded by cashiers.
Echo Bridge continues to be on a roll with its Blu-ray upgrades to Miramax catalog titles. In its hi-def debut, Dirty Pretty Things gets a humble boost in detail and vividness of hues. Compression problems are mild and rare (a bit of blocking), and the suprising liveliness of the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, make this a strong budget-priced consideration for first-time adopters and hi-def junkies looking to clear out their DVD copies.
The Blu-ray also includes a solid audio commentary with director Stephen Frears, who goes quiet from time to time but mostly provides a thorough accounting of the film's making and his directorial intentions, and a brief "Behind the Scenes Featurette" (6:14, SD).
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