July 2003
Dirty Pretty Things

Reviewed by Niija Kuykendall

Dirty Pretty Things
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steven Knight
Distributor: Miramax
Producers: Robert Jones, Tracey Seaward
Cinematographer: Chris Menges
Music: Nathan Larson

Production Design:

Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowshi
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tatou, Sergi Lopez, Sophia Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric

A romantic thriller/existential commentary, Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things takes the viewer on a thrilling yet chilly ride through London’s seedier side of capitalism and immigrant oppression. Newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor is Okwe, a Nigerian illegal refugee existing in the nonexistent, unofficial cracks of official worlds only on the threads of his two jobs and memories, or rather haunts, of his past life as a doctor and family man in Nigeria. Soon into the start of the film Okwe is unwittingly exposed to the dirt that is inevitably found within the little cracks of a bustling crossroads city containing a neglected world of illegal immigrants struggling to survive. When his night job at a crappy hotel patroned by the night crawlers of London requires him to unstop a toilet, he stumbles upon an underground organ ring that trades identities and passports for immigrant kidneys.

The story quickly takes the route of a thriller as Okwe strategizes to live and uphold his morals in a dirty yet aggressively tempting world. His love interest is Audrey Tatou’s Senay, a Turkish Muslim applying for asylum in the UK while being abused by employers and pursued by immigration officers. Senay considers the deal that would give her supposed “freedom” in a passport as Okwe tries to convince her that her insides, physical and psychological, are too high of a price. Our hearts race with Okwe and Senay as we wonder if they will survive the power plays of the “system” in a nasty game of life much like the chess that is featured in the film as Okwe’s favored pastime. Frears actually gives us a hint of the film’s metaphorical subject matter with one of Okwe’s first lines “I am here to rescue those who have been let down by the system.” He tries to rescue those who not only have been let down by the system but also those who do not actually exist within the system.

Ejiofor's leading black male presence in this mainstream, semi art-house film is amazing, not only because of the status quo lack of presence black men usually have in films such as this but also because his performance is quite simply brilliant. As chills go up and down the viewers' spine with everything Okwe experiences in such a dirty little world, Ejiofor's presence is precise and comforting in a way. Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowshi's production design and Nathan Larson's music are perfectly medical, nonemotional and cold, a dramatic polarity against a subject matter that teeters on the edge of frightening, sober empathetic emotion for those who go through stories similar to this in an immigrant reality.