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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2004
Telling some truth in black & white
I'm not one of those cranky post-Marxist social critics who believe that the movies, particularly the American brand, subtly reinforce attitudes toward order and the status quo while posing as mere entertainment. Having said that, there is something striking in how many movies there are about cops (thousands) vs. how many there are about, say, illegal immigrants.
"Dirty Pretty Things," the latest from director Stephen Frears, does something to correct the imbalance by focusing on the vulnerability of illegal workers. And not to be beaten out by all those "cop" movies, he has made this a gripping, suspenseful flick, while never straying too far from the reality he's trying to portray.
"We are the people you do not see. We drive your cars, clean your rooms, and suck your c**ks." So says Okwey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal worker from Nigeria, in a moment of anger. He's a London taxi driver by day, hotel front-desk clerk by night, and chews khat to ward off sleep, so it's understandable if he loses his temper. But for the most part, he doesn't, struggling silently to keep his head above water, hopefully save a little money, and get a new, doctored passport that will bring him a little security.
Okwey used to be a doctor, and his skills are sought out by other illegals outside the health-care system. His friends, like Senay (Audrey Toutou), a Turkish refugee working as a hotel maid, wonder why a man with such skills is driving a cab. "It's an African story" is Okwey's casually evasive response.
With no place of his own, Okwey shuttles between the sofa at the hospital mortuary where his friend Guo Yi works, and the sofa at Senay's. He has to flee from the latter, though, when immigration police come looking for him. This begins a downward spiral where things get progressively more desperate. The police also turn their attention to Senay, who winds up out of work and on the street, and Okwey -- who pines for her silently -- feeling responsible.
Further complicating matters are strange goings-on at the hotel. When Okwey goes to fix a blocked-up toilet, he finds it jammed with a bloody piece of meat, which upon closer examination, turns out to be a human heart. He goes to the hotel's owner, Juan (Sergi Lopez), but he's not so interested, saying, "The hotel business is about strangers; they come to hotels to do dirty things." He dials the police anyway, and hands the phone to Okwey who, despite his scruples, hangs it up, knowing what will happen if the police ask him for I.D. He soon discovers to his horror that there are people performing dodgy surgery in the hotel, selling their kidneys in exchange for new passports.
It's here that the film teeters on the brink of thriller excess -- except for the fact that, these days, there does exist a thriving black-market trade in illegally harvested organs. After people selling their bodies for labor and sex, this may be the ultimate dehumanization possible in a capitalist system. The critique here is clear enough -- that the law only protects those who are paying for it -- but surprisingly, this is secondary to the warm, compelling performances on display. (Almost the opposite of a Ken Loach film.)
All eyes are obviously on Audrey Toutou; this is her highest profile role since "Amelie," and it's obvious she's taking a sharp turn from "cute." Her Senay is taut, skittish, catlike, quick with a sharp retort yet uncomfortable around men, even the guy she likes, Okwey. Ejiofor, however, is the soul of the movie, a supremely chilled guy who can absorb all Senay's tension and return it with a smile. We watch, painfully, as his resilient optimism is beaten down into a weary resignation over the course of the film.
The devil has all the best lines, though, and it's Sergi Lopez, with his slicked-back hair and fiendishly amoral grin, who tempts Okwey relentlessly. He's the scariest of cinematic (and real-life) bad guys, the type who clap you on the back and purr the words of friendship as they drag you down into the depths.
Frears is a director who's good at exploring the bonds of friendship and responsibility, and the wrong move that can bring it all tumbling down -- recall Saeed Jaffrey and Daniel Day Lewis in "My Beautiful Launderette," John Malkovich and Glenn Close in "Dangerous Liaisons," or Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson in "The Hi-Lo Country." He's the sort of director who can drop an interracial romance at the center of his film in a matter-of-fact way, never trumpeting this point despite its rarity in movies. The Marxists would approve, no doubt, pointing out that it illustrates how it's class that unites us, not race that divides us. But Frears, I suspect, would say it's just two people in love.