- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Movies inspire confidence when they contrive to summarize their themes in a few well-chosen words at the outset. “Dirty Pretty Things,” the latest movie directed by Stephen Frears, establishes such credibility upfront. The protagonist, a fugitive Nigerian doctor in London named Okwe, portrayed very sympathetically by the young Nigerian-English actor Chiwtel Ejiofor, is introduced trolling for fares at an airport. Coming upon some prospects who seem to be looking in vain for a no-show chauffeur, he announces, “I am here to rescue those who’ve been let down by the system.”

The ensuing episodes confirm this cultivated, introspective and resourceful man as a chivalrous figure, inclined to embrace rescue missions that threaten his own precarious status as an illegal alien, obliged to make a living in ways that elude official notice. Though not exactly an invisible man, Okwe remains off the books and in the shadows in order to avoid detection and possible deportation. His day job as a cabbie is supplemented by work as a nighttime hotel desk clerk, where he’s expected to wink at certain nocturnal rackets, notably a nest of prostitutes on the fifth floor.

Without a dwelling of his own, Okwe has an arrangement with a furtive Turkish maid named Senay (Audrey Tatou of “Amelie”) who rents a flat in East London and begins her shift at their mutual place of employment, the Baltic Hotel, at 5 a.m. She slips Okwe the key, and he attempts to get some sleep at her place. His insomnia makes rest a difficult proposition. He likes to prepare a midday meal when Senay returns. Then they go their separate ways again, Okwe to the taxi company. He also has a backup crash pad: a morgue where a chess-playing pal named Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) has the run of the autopsy rooms.

Steven Knight’s screenplay demonstrates a keen appetite for morbid humor. There’s a startling early moment at the dispatch office when Okwe’s boss, looking morose, drops his pants. The payoff is that he’s requesting gratuitous medical advice and treatment for a certain leakage in the genitals. We soon discover that the unlicensed physician is frequently importuned by acquaintances or referrals who prefer not to deal with the legitimate health system.

Ultimately, Okwe’s nerve and compassion are tested by the discovery of an appalling traffic in backroom surgery: Some illegals willing to sacrifice an organ, typically a kidney, for enough money to purchase passports or other desirable documents. Okwe patches up one gory example and then discovers that the Baltic’s fifth floor is also available for black-market organ removal.

The impulse to intervene, initially blocked by a smugly corrupt manager nicknamed Sneaky (Sergi Lopez in fine loathsome form), becomes overwhelming when Okwe learns that Senay, on the run from immigration agents and obsessed with acquiring an American passport, is desperate enough to volunteer as a donor.

“Dirty Pretty Things” keeps its camera averted from any location that suggests a familiar or fashionable London. The sense of pictorial novelty and authenticity is reinforced by the underdog nature of the principal characters. It has been a while since we have been asked to root for the survival skills of a distinctive and appealing set of exiles and scroungers. An exceptionally touching rapport develops between the co-stars, but the filmmakers are a little reluctant to play matchmakers.

I’m not sure they have to. The audience probably will be happy to jump to hopeful conclusions. Senay becomes infatuated with Okwe, and he does not appear romantically encumbered while the story unfolds. However, Mr. Knight dredges up a last-act inhibition: a back story that reveals Okwe is widowed and still has a daughter in Nigeria. The timing makes the explanation sound like a desperate avoidance mechanism.

It’s easier to believe that Okwe would regard himself as too old and perhaps too damaged for Senay. One of Mr. Ejiofor’s skills is that he seems able to project the temperament of a much older man. He was barely 20 when he made his film debut in “Amistad” in 1997 and has emerged as a theater star in England in the past three years. He appears to be a godsend to serious filmmakers with roles for a dedicated and accomplished performer.

There’s another discovery at the unruly end of the spectrum: Sophie Okonedo, another recruit from the English stage, as a volatile hooker named Juliette, who proves instrumental in assisting Okwe and Senay. She’s a handful. I look forward to watching her lower the boom and talk tough for years to come.



TITLE: “Dirty Pretty Things”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; morbid plot elements involving a black market in organ transplants)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Steven Knight.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes


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