" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

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Starting with a disturbing discovery in a London hotel room, Dirty Pretty Things is a thriller that takes full advantage of its setting and delivers twists, turns and a surprising amount of soul.

On the Move

Sharp, honest Okwe prefers work to sleep
Sharp, honest Okwe prefers work to sleep

The story revolves around Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amistad), a unique individual who doesn’t like to sleep. Instead he prefers to work by night as a hotel bellhop and by day as a taxi driver. He’s sharp and painfully honest with himself and others. The problem is, he’s an illegal alien from Nigeria living in London and he lives his life constantly on the run and evading immigration officers.

For the time being, Okwe takes occasional breaks on the couch in the apartment of Senay (Audrey Tautou, L’ Auberge Espagnole). She’s an illegal alien from Turkey in pursuit of the American dream: A life in New York where the policemen ride white horses and the trees are decorated with lights in the winter.

They make for one of the most interesting pairs in recent memory. They’re not lovers; Okwe won’t allow that for a very intriguing reason. As it turns out, Okwe has a lot in common with Dr. Richard Kimble, the legendary man on the run in The Fugitive.

Matters only get more complicated for Okwe and Senay when Okwe finds the cause of a plugged up toilet in a room frequented by a prostitute. It becomes his mission to uncover what happened, not easy for a man in desperate need of avoiding undue attention and under the watch of Juan (Sergi Lopez, Hombres Felices), the hotel’s sleazy night manager.

As Juan advises Okwe, “don’t concern yourself with who comes and who goes.”

Not the Queen’s England

There are many things to admire about Dirty Pretty Things. Most notably are the characters. They’re driven by their own private histories and ambitions and each one behaves and speaks in a manner that makes sense for that individual character.

Another delight is that the film makes no attempt to compromise itself with a “bankable” star. Aside from Tautou, the star of the internationally successful Amelie (and taking on her first English-speaking role in Dirty Pretty Things), none of the actors are instantly recognizable. This is a film in which the main characters are all immigrants, illegal or otherwise, from Nigeria, Turkey, India, Spain, Russia and elsewhere.

Also, the story, written by Steve Knight, a relative newcomer with nothing special to his credit until now, successfully manages to weave together a few different storylines and subplots. They all involve the underbelly of English society and the lengths some people will go to in order to secure any sort of future.

Summing up their desperation, at one point Okwe poignantly tells Senay, “for you and I there’s only survival.”

Clue

Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) nicely ratchets up the tension, starting with a very slow boil as the cast of characters enters the story. After a shaky start that seems directionless, Frears gradually moves the film from standard dramatic fare into riveting thriller territory.

Along the way, he also presents a very offbeat notion of romance, one that involves true longing and the pain of unrequited love.

Don’t be misled by the title, though. Dirty Pretty Things isn’t about attractive people and their bad habits. There are some uncompromisingly nasty people lurking about in the film and they demonstrate people’s willingness to degrade their fellow men and women when given any sort of upper hand.

There’s something Hitchcockian about what Frears has accomplished here. With Dirty Pretty Things he has created a smart thriller that stays true to itself without telegraphing its next move. That strategy pays off nicely as the film becomes more involving as it progresses, right up to its honest and heartbreaking conclusion