The Ethics of Desperation

Dirty Pretty Things

A key reason Dirty Pretty Things works so well is that the audience can never be sure in what direction it will go. It might be a sober exploration of issues related to immigration, or it might be a romance, or it might be a humanistic thriller, or it might be a Lynchian mystery, or ... . It’s all those things, actually, and at least pretty good at all of them. The movie is nimble, and just when you think you’ve nailed it, it swerves in another direction.

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Steven Knight, the film concerns Okwe, an illegal Nigerian émigré, and Senay, a legal immigrant from Turkey. They both work in a London hotel — a violation of the conditions of her residency — and live in the same apartment (another no-no). He finds a human heart blocking a toilet in one of the hotel rooms. And then an employee nicknamed Sneaky discovers some secrets from Okwe’s past.

Audrey Tautou (Amélie) fights a losing battle against the childlike conception of Senay; the character is the least-believable thing in the movie, and that’s saying something. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Okwe is both amazingly open and withholding; he’s easy to read, yet the audience is never quite certain who he is or what he’s capable of. Best of all is Benedict Wong as a truth-telling morgue employee with ample common sense and a keen eye for character. His interactions with Okwe provide much of the movie’s humor and seem to spark in him a certain resolve.

The intricate plot unfolds beautifully and naturally and is never difficult to follow, with both Okwe and Senay forced to come face-to-face with the unpleasant realities of their marginal statuses. Although it covers a great many genres, Dirty Pretty Things finally emerges as an effective study of the moral and ethical aspects of desperation.

The ending could have used some de-hamming, and Frears and Knight linger too long on the sexual exploitation of the virginal Senay. But Dirty Pretty Things is otherwise an exemplary, surprising, and multifaceted work.

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