Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things is a film that probably would have been better if it hadn’t tried to do too many things. I say that even though I did enjoy it. I just felt as if it brought up a lot of points but didn’t delve far enough into them. It comes across as far more superficial than this type of film should be. When you have a film about both the exploitation of illegal immigrants, the illegal kidney exchange industry, as well as a relationship between people of different backgrounds, it’s going to take some time to develop each.

I think it’s the characters that makes Dirty Pretty Things impossible to turn away from. Most of the time, there isn’t much of a plot, although there are certain things that happen to each of these individuals. The lead is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant living in London. Nobody knows where he comes from — he speaks several languages and is reclusive about himself — although when asked he responds with “it’s an African story,” only half-jokingly. He works at least two jobs, the most prominent of which is at a hotel, running the front desk.

Of course, hotel workers multitask. He’s informed by the resident prostitute that one of the rooms needs checking, and inside he finds a plugged toilet. Reaching in, he finds a heart. A human heart. He reports it to his manager, a Spaniard named Sneaky (Sergi L√≥pez), although he is indifferent toward it. Something’s going on here, and for a while, it seems like the heart and its former owner are going to dominate Okwe’s train of thought. However, that gets derailed soon enough as the film transitions from formula thriller to poignant drama.

He’s rooming with a Turkish refugee, Senay (Audrey Tautou), who works as a maid for the hotel. She’s not allowed to be working, nor is she allowed to accept rent for her first six months in the country. Okwe isn’t even allowed to be here. The two begin the film more or less not even talking, although they soon warm up to one another. They both dream of getting to America, and are working in order to make that come true, even if neither is legally allowed to.

Dirty Pretty Things doesn’t dwell on the human heart, or even on the somewhat creepy manager. It throws more obstacles at its main characters than should be necessary, and we get them overcome most, if not all of these challenges. Yes, the stakes get higher later on, yes, we find out the real origin of Okwe, and there’s probably a possibly love story as well. But it’s more about the survival, about doing what’s necessary given touch circumstances, and about chasing a dream that seems so very far away.

There are more characters as well, like a legal Asian immigrant, Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), another worker at the hotel of undeclared origin (Zlatko Buric), and the aforementioned prostitute (Sophie Okonedo), who sounds British but who really knows? All of them are interesting, and all of them play a very specific role. For the most part, that role is to show us exactly how certain members of society are treated, and how the majority turn a blind eye to — or even participate in — this treatment.

What gets lost in the shuffle is this initial thriller aspect, although it picks up sporadically throughout. It never really does come fully together, largely because the film isn’t about that, nor is that what it wants you to take away from it. Dirty Pretty Things is dead-set in making sure you understand what its message is, so much so that the mystery aspect and the possible romance both get pushed aside so that it can drive its point home. There’s a very powerful quote near the end of the film that will fill in those who don’t pay a lot of attention when watching movies, and it makes sure that everyone will leave with at least a vague understanding of what it’s trying to say.

It helps that there’s always a sense of hope permeating throughout the picture. Even though there’s almost always something bad happening, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, you always root for these characters. Not just because they’re generally good people, played by strong actors, who are working hard to get what they want, but because the script and direction are so tight and the message so clear that you understand what they’re going through and you want something good to happen.

The downtrodden tone is upset a tad in the end, as in the final 20 minutes or so, Dirty Pretty Things kind of falls apart. It’s difficult to end a film like this without a melancholic approach, and because of that, the ending feels a bit like a cop out. It brings in aspects that weren’t delved deeply into earlier, and it borders on the ridiculous, like the filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner and had to think of a cheap way to escape. Par for the course in a thriller, I guess, but since the film so frequently forgets that it’s a thriller, this becomes distracting.

Dirty Pretty Things is a film about something, and it’s an issue that deserves looking at. This might not be the film to change your mind about anything or encourage you to get up and do something — in large part because it skims more along the surface and definitely could have benefited from a longer running time — but it’s a worthwhile endeavor to sit through. It’s poignant, well-made, and quite enjoyable, even if it won’t be a captivating thriller. Just captivating is good enough.

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