"There is nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man." a friend warns Okwe, the virtuous man at the heart of Stephen Frears new film Dirty Pretty Things. Okwe was a doctor in Nigeria. But in London, where he's just another undocumented worker, he's reduced to exercising his intelligence and integrity as a hotel desk clerk. Okwe is a pillar in this semi-underground world, where people of all nations and colors are bound by the hope for a better life and the constant threat of discovery and deportation. It's a vibrant and ingenious culture that exists just behind the people and facades movies typically focus on. It's also the breeding ground for the kind of humor and desperation director Frears seems to enjoy. So when Okwe happens upon a human heart plugging up one of the hotel toilets, we know something terribly, terribly wrong has taken place, but at least the right man is on the job.
There is a thriller lurking somewhere in Dirty Pretty Things, but fortunately Frears and screenwriter Steven Knight are in no hurry to define the stakes and wring out every drop of peril. Instead we take some time to walk in Okwe’s shoes and look at life through his weary but steadfast eyes. As played by British stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Okwe is a poster boy for quiet dignity. He is impeccable in his menial jobs, never bothering to hint how far beneath his talents they are. And even when he is working the wrong side of the law to help an immigrant beat the system, you don’t question his ethics. But as heroes go, Okwe is tired. Very, very tired. And our villain, a hotel manager with a side business selling live human organs on the black market, takes on Okwe as a challenge: if he can corrupt and compromise this vastly superior human being, then surely he is the master of this small desperate universe.
Oh yes, and the woman our villain all but ties to the railroad tracks is the doe-eyed Audrey Tautou from Amelie, playing a Turkish hotel maid. Dirty Pretty Things has a lot of good old-fashioned melodrama at its core. But like it's virtuous hero, Frears film just happens to be smarter than the rest of the crowd. He makes it safe for thinking people to enjoy the delicious piece of ironic revenge waiting at the end. Because by the time we get there, everybody has earned what’s coming to them, even Okwe and his uncertain future,
With an engaging ensemble cast of international characters that never delve into caricature, Dirty Pretty Things is fun without being especially funny. Just as it manages to be dangerous without being especially thrilling. It’s a curious little film. And I say that as a compliment,
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 7/30/03
Dirty Pretty Things
UK - 2002