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DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (director: Stephen Frears; screenwriter: Steve Knight; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editor: Mick Audsley; music: Christian Henson; cast: Audrey Tautou (Senay), Sergi López (Sneaky-Juan), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Okwe), Sophie Okonedo (Juliette), Zlatko Buric (Ivan), Benedict Wong (Guo Yi), Kriss Dosanjh (Asian Businessman); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tracey Seaward/Robert Jones; Miramax; 2002-UK)
“Phony and unmoving.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British director Stephen Frears (“Grifters“/”High Fidelity“) presents a dubious thriller written by crass television scribe (“Who Wants to be a Millionaire”) Steve Knight that is set in London’s underground of illegal immigrants and criminals. At its best, it tells how the system lets down its own citizens and subjects its illegals to less than human standards. But its worthy aims are cheapened by an awkward style of directing, a script that ruins any good it might have exposed by its unwarranted feel-good ending, and the miscasting of its co-star. Audrey Tautou is the French actress and star of the overrated Amelie, who is attempting her first role in English and her first Turkish accent (which is questionable). She is more than annoying as the love interest to a Nigerian illegal–she’s unbearable. Ms. Tautou shrilly portrays a nervous victim, where she must trade oral sex for a continued stay in ‘merry old’ London. By the time the end credits rolled down, I felt every scenario from the melodramatic romance to the dramatic plight of the illegals was contrived and the real meaning of dislocation and survival was sapped by the weak execution derived from the actors and the clumsiness dictated by the script.

“Dirty” centers around a young illegal Nigerian, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor-English born Nigerian), who was a doctor in his homeland but had to flee for political reasons and is wanted back home for trumped up charges of murder. The genial, peaceful and intelligent Okwe accepts his fate as he fights with dignity for survival by working full-time during the day as a cabdriver and full-time at night as a desk clerk in a posh West London Hotel, where he’s also expected to be the porter. Okwe stays awake by chewing on a medicinal root and never sleeps (he’s so pure, that like a God he’s personified as perfect). The non-religious man’s virgin Moslem Turkish would-be girlfriend and roommate, Senay (Tautou), works days at the same hotel as a maid. She’s seeking political asylum and the State subsidizes her apartment, but she’s not allowed to work while awaiting a decision. Therefore both are wary of immigration agents, who pop up in Senay’s small flat on a tip from neighbors.

The hotel doorman Ivan is Russian and is one of Okwe’s friends. He’s a good guy but has his eye out for making an extra buck–which is the film’s underlying theme that even bad deeds done in order to survive might not always be done by bad people.

The pivotal plot point turns around the hotel’s prostitute with the heart of gold, Juliette (Okonedo), who alerts Okwe that in the room she used there’s something he should check out. He discovers a human heart clogging up the toilet, and infers that it was taken from someone alive. Okwe reports it to his slimy boss, the amoral night manager, Sneaky (Sergi López). The heartless manager knows Okwe can’t report it to the police without being discovered and deported. This gives Sneaky a chance to ham it up as he explains to the innocent refugee what the hotel business is all about, which also explains the film’s title: “Strangers come to hotels to do dirty things. In the morning it’s our job to make things pretty again.”

Okwe eventually finds out that he stumbled upon a black market body parts for sale business, where desperate refugees sell their kidneys and other vital organs to get an illegal passport or money. When Sneaky learns that Okwe was a doctor, he aims to induce him to become part of this unethical money-making cow.

Benedict Wong as Guo Yi is a likable legal Chinese immigrant friend of Okwe’s, who works as a morgue porter and plays chess and warmly lays on him some free practical advice.

The film greatly disappoints in its melodramatic way and in its aims to uncover the problems of the illegals — “the people you do not see.” It all seemed so unbelievable and ludicrous, and failed to make any of the characters come to life as real people. The film might present itself as being unorthodox but everyone was a stock figure and forced to utter simplistic lines of pain, as this dishonest effort to make inroads on a serious problem could never materialize as it ends with an out-of-place action film scenario. In short, nothing worked–thriller, romance, black comedy, or social commentary. Through the photography efforts of cinematographer Chris Menges, the film tried to look grimly pretty and cover up all its sappy moralizing. But even the cinematography failed to dazzle or hold the proper edgy mood.

REVIEWED ON 8/17/2003 GRADE: C –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”