Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2003 2:04 pm 
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Glossy troubling things

Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things has been called a `thriller.' Well, there can be all sorts of thrillers, I guess – romantic thrillers, crime thrillers, spy thrillers, psychological thrillers, even philosophical thrillers – and this is a moral thriller with a romantic subtext. It's also been called an `urban political thriller.' Maybe we just don't have a word yet for what it is. Anyway clearly it's an exposé of some of the outrages illegal immigrants face in the West -- as well as of one of the most shocking ways that poor and Third World people are exploited whether at home or abroad: fly-by-night, illegal, cruel, and dangerous organ removals for transplants. Here, in Frears' movie, created together with American TV writer Steve Knight, the poor illegals give kidneys to get passports and other falsified papers in a their desperate effort to make their lives more secure. Their lives are so uncertain and dangerous that for them every day is another page in a very gritty thriller.

The action focuses on a London inn called The Baltic Hotel. It's a respectable enough hotel by the look of it. We don't see much beyond the movie's few characters who work there – the African doctor, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor); the young Turkish woman (Senay, Audrey Tautou), working as a maid who's temporarily putting Okwe up at her flat; the smug, despicable assistant hotel manager Sneaky, AKA Jose (Sergi Lopez), who stages the kidney removals; and Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), ironically named, since she's a whore who uses the hotel rooms to ply her trade. There are just a few others who populate the movie, notably Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), Okwe's Chinese chess opponent whom he sees in the mortuary-crematorium of a city hospital, and Ivan (Zlatko Buric) another hotel manager.

The two moral poles are defined by Jose (Lopez) and Okwe. Jose tries to justify his behavior by saying that he's saving the people who get the organs and helping those who give them. The only trouble is that the operations are hack jobs and so the donors sometimes are left with gaping wounds and die or suffer horribly, or both; and we don't know what happens to the organs' recipients. Jose's self-justification only heightens our sense of his evil. Okwe is the other extreme: he chews leaves of qaat or some other natural stimulant to avoid sleeping and he is pure dedication – to survival, but also to helping others, because when he sees a duty, he does it. As an illegal, he finds that his fight to be good is staged constantly against a stacked deck.

The action's touched off when Okwe finds a human heart clogging the toilet in room 515. This leads him to find out what‘s happening in this room, and half the movie is about Okwe's investigation of and eventual involvement in Jose‘s nefarious schemes. He stays with Senay, and that leads to the other half of the movie, a plot all about Senay's travails as an illegal trying to work. Ogwe is an illegal too, but he has the twin advantages of moral outrage and an M.D. Senay is a helpless, hapless virgin, possessed only of a determination to transfer to New York, or at least a dream of doing so.

This is the essential material from which Dirty Pretty Things is put together. It's about ugliness, about being pulled down into the dirty things Senor Jose says people who come to hotels do – anonymously – at night, trying to make them look pretty in the morning. And it's about a social system that chews up the weak faster than Okwe chews his qaat.

Towards the end Okwe, Juliette, and Senay seem to be participating in Jose's ugly game, and his client who's come to pick up the organ in the gloom of a parking garage asks them `Who are you? Why haven't I seen you before?'

`Because we're the people you never see,' Okwe answers, beginning an astonishing and defiant little declaration that points the way to his and Senay's final triumph over Jose's traps and those set by the First World to punish people from poor countries for coming to the table.

Frears' movie is graced by the good writing of Mr. Knight (one might fault his organizational skills slightly -- and there are some holes in the plot -- but his dialogue is vivid and intelligent) and the beautiful photography of Chris Menges (who provided the visuals for another kind of moral and political thriller the same year, Graham Greene's Quiet American as filmed by Philip Noyce). Beyond that, it explores fresh material but evokes other elegant studies of the sleazy underbelly of London like Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa. It's continually involving because of the good actors, especially the occasionally wan and saccharine but mostly lively and touching Audrey Tautou and the magnificent quiet anger of Chiwetel Ejiofor, as well as the irrepressible and always scary Sergi Lopez. Some of them are unfamiliar with English but you'd never notice. Benedict Wong also has a distinctive, arch, intelligent tone whenever he speaks. Even if all the foreign speakers render the English a little flavorless (except for Sophie Okonedo nobody seems to have grown up in London), that's part of the continually involving and suspenseful story.

It's only later perhaps that one realizes the Baltic Hotel and Senay's sweatshop have little external life except what flickers on briefly when these characters are present; and Okwe's taxi driving experience is barely glimpsed. The backgrounds are sketchily drawn, and the two immigration officers are empty Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern stooges. This is far from the rich social palette of Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette or the sharply etched relationships of his The Grifters.

But Frears' gift as a director is to do something different every time. Here he's conveying a social message through a thriller-esque melodrama. You have to decide if it works for you at this double task, but it should be obvious to everybody that, if this is some kind of agit-prop, it's nonetheless of a sophisticated (and visually exquisite) sort. Frears hits a different note every time he makes a movie, but he never hits a wrong one.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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