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Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

R · 107 minutes

Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Steve Knight

 · Chiwetel Ejiofor
 · Audrey Tautou
 · Sergi Lopez

Review by Thom Stricklin

I'll be honest.  This Friday, when Dirty Pretty Things opened at the local theatre, there was only one reason I sat waiting for it: Audrey Tautou.  Yes, the French actress famous for her starring role in Amélie.  She compelled me to see this film, because, for the first time, I would see her as someone other than the wide-eyed angel of Montmartre.  More than that...  I would see her speak English! (The aspiring filmmaker in me swoons at the thought of getting her to cameo in a future film.) That's why I saw Dirty Pretty Things Friday.

On Saturday, I saw it again, for a different reason.  Saturday, I was confident I'd seen a pretty damn good film the night before, and I wanted to make sure.




Dirty Pretty Things is the brainchild of director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) and freshman screenwriter Steve Knight (Co-creator of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", of all things).  But this film is nothing like your typical John Cusack or Jack Black comedy, and you won't find any cheesy Regis Philbin one-liners.  Instead, you'll find a compelling tale of two immigrants, a Nigerian exile named Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a dreamy-eyed Turkish girl named Senay (Audrey Tautou).  Okwe rents space in Senay's apartment, which is against her terms of asylum, and both work at The Baltic, a seedy hotel run by immigrants from top to bottom.  At the top: Señor Juan, a sneaky spaniard who uses his employees' illigal immigrant status to his full advantage.

As Okwe begins to uncover some of his boss's misdeeds, Frears presents us with a fresh & intriguing thriller, though perhaps it moves at a slower pace than Clancy-savvy American audiences are familiar with.  The truth of Juan's conspiracy is quite extreme--in fact, it might almost be unbelievable, except by that time, something else has happened.

By then, Frears has brought the audience quite close to Okwe and Senay.  We feel how real and extreme, how sad and damning their existences seem to be, so how could Juan's schemes be any less real?

As the end approaches, it's once again easy to guess what American audiences might expect: either a wholly tragic ending courtesy of Shakespeare or Darren Arronofsky; or the miraculously cheery Sandra Bullock happy ending, lined with rose petals.  Nope; try none of the above.  Frears and Knight surprise us once again with an ending that is both happy and sad and heartbreakingly believable.  (And I spoil nothing, as you will never guess it!)




Making this film all the more tanglible are the performances by the entire cast.  I would love to brag about Audrey--and believe me, I will--but I must honestly give highest praise to Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Whether they are his natural qualities or traits he adopted for the role, his combination of sad eyes, his modestly proud mouth, and his soft, wise voice make him irreplaceable in this role.  His performance remind me of some of our country's own actors.  Denzel Washington, or Levar Burton, when either of their characters were strapped to a wagon and lashed bloody with a whip, and your heart sank for them.  Ejiofor's performance of Okwe is much like that, but better.  It's better because he doesn't need to be strapped to a wagon.  He doesn't need a whip cracking behind him, forcing him to wince.  Okwe is simply a man without a home, without any security, and yet Ejiofor makes us sadder for him then for the others.  History repeats itself--I can't wait to see this actor in another film.

Ah, yes, and then there's Audrey.  It's verifiable now, folks: she's enchanting.  Not long ago, I read an interview with Audrey Tautou in anticipation of this film.  With all the innocence of her most famous role, and with a modesty that makes her even more admirable, Audrey admitted that she is very unfamiliar with English, let alone English with Turkish accent.  She said she hopes audiences will be forgiving of her performance, as it is her first English role.  Well, Miss Tautou, you need not be forgiven.  Her English wasn't just passable...  Her English--and her roughly Turkish accent, convincing enough for me--allow her performance to shine through. We're presented with a quirky, believable young muslim girl, with no trace of Amélie but those gorgeous eyes.  Thingy Blah Blah 3 certainly isn't the film for Audrey Tautou, but if she so desired, she could take Hollywood by storm as Napoleon took Europe.

The supporting cast does just as it implies, from the sharpwitted morgue worker Guo Yi, to the equally dimwitted Russian doorman Ivan, from the sleazy cab company boss to...  well, the nightly hotel frequenter named Juliette.  Together with Okwe and Senay, they solidify an image of the immigrant underground of London that makes us think, "Hey! I thought we were 'the melting pot'!"



Dirty Pretty Things is a fitting title.  Made for $10 million, a modest cost compared to summer blockbusters in the states, it's not the shiniest film ever made.  The film quality is, in fact, quite grainy in places, and the color spectrum is a fraction of what you'd find in a single scene of Spider-Man or Charlie's Angels or even Amélie.  To boot, there's no score, no music but what the characters hear as they cross the street or enter a market.  But for all that this "dirty" film lacks, it makes up for with a beautifully crafted story and some of the most compelling characters seen on screen in years.

Please, don't go waste your money on My Boss's Daughter or whatever other end-of-summer trash Hollywood managed to muster a good commercial for.  This film is certainly not for kids, but if you're looking for a school's-in trip amongst adults, check to see what local theatre is showing Dirty Pretty Things and see it instead.

934 Words · Published: 1 September 2003

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