Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian illegal immigrant in London. This brooding man drives a taxi by day and works as a porter at a plush hotel in London by night. He supposedly never sleeps and chews on some kind of leaves to keep himself awake. He is a kind man; popular and well-loved amongst fellow immigrants who live a hand-to-mouth existence in the city doing odd jobs as custodians, cleaners, cooks, cabbies. Okwe also helps out his friends and other poor immigrants with their ailments; apparently he has some history working as a doctor in his home country!
Okwe has an arrangement with another illegal immigrant, a shy, Turkish woman named Senay (Audrey Tautou), wherein he uses her couch in her small room to catch a few winks during morning time when she reports to work in the same hotel he works in. He also likes Senay and she likes him but nothing has been said yet. Senay is too reserved and shy and fears the neighbours. She does not want to attract unwanted attention, especially from nosey gossipers! Any wrong move can lead to her deportation; the immigration officials are already harassing her.
A dramatic change of events occurs one day and it sets off a series of episodes that threaten to change the lives of Okwe and Senay forever. A prostitute Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) asks Okwe to check a room she has been in. Okwe inspects the room and finds that the toilet bowl is blocked and overflowing. He is shocked to discover that the cause of the blockage is a human heart stuck in the pipes! The Spanish night manager Senor “Sneaky” Juan (Sergi Lopez) seems to be well aware and tries to bribe Okwe to keep his mouth shut. Okwe gradually discovers that there is something sinister and “dirty” beneath the “pretty” hotel exterior.
“Dirty Pretty Things” is a tale about dreams. It is about those countless immigrants who dream of making a better living in a rich, developed country; of having the kind of life and freedom they could never have in their home countries. It is about how they would give their eye and teeth to have a legal status! Survival is on the knife’s edge as is the case for any illegal immigrant in a big city, who wants to ‘escape’ to paradise. Steven Knight’s screenplay is refreshingly original, barring some minor clichéd characterization and blatant racial stereotyping which prove to be the glitches in an otherwise superb work of writing (It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). Stephen Frears turns Knight’s script into an intriguing thriller, that’s also a gut-wrenchingly potent drama centered around illegal immigrants in London.
The story is told in a crisp fashion with some beautiful cinematography and commendable shot composition, and the preliminary scenario is established rather quickly but doesn’t seem hurried or forced in any way. It hardly takes any time for the plot to take off which works in the film’s favour. The character of Okwe quickly strikes a chord with the audiences, with most of the first few minutes revolving around him and his deeds. What doesn’t work is how most characters (including Okwe, to some extent) are instantly recognizable as either “good” or “bad” or “kind” or “unkind” and don’t deviate from these traits of theirs! Okwe, for example, is shown to be such an impossibly noble and kind soul that you can’t possibly think he can harm anyone. On the other hand there’s 'Sneaky' Juan, who is like the ultimate personification of 'slimy', staring you in the face! Some lines of dialog including some oozing racial stereotyping are just too blatantly rude to be taken seriously.
And then there are some character clichés like the helpful buddy (Guo, an Asian man who works at the hospital mortuary), the hooker with a heart of gold (Juliette), Senay’s fat and horny old immigrant employer (Barber Ali, a sweatshop foreman) who not-surprisingly asks her for sexual favours in return for not revealing her identity or whereabouts to the hot on the trail immigration officials.. ! Hand it to the filmmaker and the actors though, that despite these clichés, the viewer ultimately ends up rooting for them anyway! Audrey Tautou is in fact miscast as a Turkish woman, and although one really wonders why someone from Turkey would have to go through all the tough ordeals to secure a status for themselves in London, she delivers a kind of performance that you can’t overlook and can’t help but applaud. Senay’s predicament and her dealing with the whole situation is pulled off in a sincere effort by Tautou. Ditto for Sergi Lopez as the crooked hotel manager who has something dirty up his sleeve. The guy is despicable to say the least and portrays his one-dimensional character in an extremely convincing manner.
But the big winner in the performances department is of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Okwe. His character is written in a manner which will surely evoke great empathy. Ejiofor makes the character his own and steals the show from right under everyone’s noses with a fabulous performance and manages to instantly connect with the viewer. He is a helpful, kind, selfless man but you very much know that he has a great sadness about him. It is a brilliant portrayal of a tortured soul; an epitome of self-sacrifice.
It is worthwhile to check out Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things”. While it may not be perfect, it is a fine work of cinema that is gripping as well as emotionally affecting and will keep you hooked ‘til it reaches its bittersweet conclusion.