Avoiding familiar common postcard views of London, Stephen Frears makes Dirty Pretty Things a tour through shady dealings and sufferings that could be set in any big city on either side of the Atlantic. It’s a contemporary nightmare. We are drawn into the daily desperation of overworked immigrants—legal and otherwise—who survive by doing the world’s dirty work.
Frears, who surprises us with something new every time, cleverly dodges the curse of social dilemma films. Weaving threads of classic thrillers through this gritty realistic context, he satisfies our desire for a good story—for intrigue, suspense, humor, big revelations and a tantalizing possibility of romance—even as he educates us about the evils occurring right under our noses. The hero’s conscience leads him into an underworld that recalls Blue Velvet and into a relationship that echoes Casablanca.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, stoic and slow-burning) is a Nigerian immigrant hiding from immigration police while he works several wearying jobs. In Nigeria, he was a respected doctor. Here, he’s a secretive superhero—taxi driver and janitor by day, hotel clerk by night, undercover physician in the off-hours. To help his persecuted kindred, he takes advantage of being overlooked, pocketing drugs while he sweeps hospital floors. When exhaustion gets the upper hand, he takes refuge in the apartment of his beautiful co-worker, Senay (Audrey Tautou, half-convincing as an English-speaking Turkish immigrant), and at the morgue, where his chess partner, Guo Yi, works (Benedict Wong, the quick-witted comic relief.)
While Okwe lacks the naïve idealism of Blue Velvet’s protagonist, his tour of hell begins with a David Lynch-ian discovery. Instead of an ear in a field, it’s a human heart clogging a hotel toilet. The diabolical hotel manager, known as “Sneaky” (Sergi Lopez), shrugs and says that “dirty” things happen at night, while it is the staff’s responsibility to make everything “pretty again” by day. Disgruntled, Okwe adds detective to his résumé.
Ugly secrets lie at the heart of the matter—passports, blood, betrayal. Okwe gets in over his head. When Sneaky discovers Okwe’s guarded secrets and exploits them, both Okwe and Senay are tempted to make devil’s bargains to secure their safety. Meanwhile, police circle the hotel like wolves.
It gets worse before it gets better. In Frears’ bleak depiction of a compassionless society, no charitable agency rescues the persecuted. No God hears their prayers; they can turn only to each other for fragments of kindness.
The plot does eventually turn a bit predictable—and implausible, as Okwe makes a last-ditch effort to free himself from the trap. But Frears refuses to turn sentimental—he keeps both feet on the filthy ground. The bittersweet final scene will stick with you. As irreligious as Okwe claims to be, there is something Christ-like about his selfless care for others, fulfilling the film’s central observation: “There is nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man.”