Few movies have been done as great a disservice by their poster as Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things. On it a naked Audrey Tautou emerges from the poorly airbrushed shadows, below her the title is playfully spelled out in colorful cut-out letters that belong on the poster of a teen rom-com, and above the tagline reads, “Some things are too dangerous to keep secret.” What in the world is this film selling? Surely a dark comedy about the kidnapping of a high-class call girl, or a Sapphic horror story set in an elite girl’s school where the beautiful new French teacher turns out to be a witch. Even “The provocative new thriller from the director of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and ‘The Grifters’” at the bottom drips with sex. When asked about the poster in an interview Tautou seemed genuinely perplexed, “I don’t know the culture here, so I don’t know if it’s a good poster in this country, or not. But when I saw it I was a bit surprised. […] I’m not a publicist. I don’t know what works. But that’s not the movie, not really.” (Carlo Cavagna, AboutFilm.com Aug 2003) She was confused because her character, Senay, is a virginal Turkish refugee, who illegally works as a chambermaid in a London hotel; she isn’t even the main character. Of course there was a rationale behind marketing the film this way, Dirty Pretty Things was one of Audrey Tautou’s first roles after her star-making turn in Amelie, and it was her only English-speaking one. The real star of the film was Chiwetel Ejiofor, who even now as an Oscar Nominee doesn’t headline films on his own, and back in 2003 was only known in London theater circles. Tautou was the recognizable face in a cast of unknowns. And the plot? Dirty Pretty Things is a thriller about the marginalization of the people clinging to the edges of society, the immigrants and refugees trying to scrape by in London without officially existing. Well, that and the illegal trade of organs on the black market. It’s no wonder that the marketing people threw up their hands and said, “Sex and Amelie! Done.” Which is shame because Dirty Pretty Things is an incredible film.
Stephen Frears’ ambition with Dirty Pretty Things was to make a genre film that had genuine things to say about the immigration experience. Treading a delicate line, the movie has the seedy thrills of a film noir, while also being a slow burning exploration into the lives of people the system has forgotten. When The Telegraph complimented Frears on his delicacy in not making the film vulgar, he shot back: “But what I liked about it was vulgar. The beautiful people, the romance, the thriller. I like using popular forms. Its politics are built into it, you couldn’t take them out. […] It took a long time trying to balance all that with the jokes and characterisation and the rest of it. All I hope is that I’ve made a film that’s both serious and entertaining – and that already seems wildly ambitious” (Catherine Shoard, The Telegraph Dec 3, 2002). It was ambitious, making entertainment out of serious social issues can be a disaster, but Frears hedged his bets by putting together an absolutely phenomenal international cast lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou, but ably supported by Sergi López, whose performance is all the more impressive when you learn that he didn’t speak English at the time, the luminous Sophie Okonedo, somehow managing to inject new life into the old “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché, and Benedict Wong, whose easy chemistry with Ejiofor is worth the price of admission alone.
Ejiofor’s Okwe is a good man in an impossible situation, a Nigerian doctor, who works as a London cab driver during the day and a night porter in a luxury hotel at night. His 24 hour existence, maintained by chewing khat leaves, makes Dirty Pretty Things feel disconcerting and dreamlike, a feeling reinforced by both cinematographer Chris Menges’ expert lensing of dark artificially lit spaces, and screenwriter Steven Knight’s story, which already has a surreal quality even before Okwe finds a human heart clogging the toilet of one of the hotel suites. As the mystery unspools it’s Okwe’s profound decency that compels you, in Ejiofor’s words, “Okwe is fascinating because beneath the guise of a completely invisible man in London, he’s a classic hero.” (Amy Raphael, The Guardian Nov 3, 2002)
Those who know me know that when asked about my favorite actor my answer without hesitation is Chiwetel Ejiofor. This conviction stems from seeing Dirty Pretty Things back in 2003, leaving the theater that night everyone in my family felt it. It is not a showy performance, no great speechifying, or flashy bouts of ACTING, it is very internal, intentional and calm. It also is absolutely magnetic, watching Dirty Pretty Things you see a star being born. In 2008 I had the privilege of seeing him play Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in London. After the play I stood outside in the cold with a sharpie and my copy of Dirty Pretty Things. When he emerged, understandably exhausted, I asked him for an autograph. He paused and did a double take at me when he saw the title on the disc. All I could say was, “it’s one of my favorite films.”
This is a film that insinuates itself deeply into our awareness. It’s that rare pulp story with something on its mind, an unnerving, socially conscious thriller with a killer sense of narrative drive. – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times