June 10, 2023 at 4:09 am

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo


“Once in awhile, there’s a special movie. If Dirty Pretty Things were a poem, you’d want to tuck it in your handbag, briefcase or backpack. When you had a break or a breakdown in your busy day, you’d reach for its inspiration.”

The movie opens with a handsome black African, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), hustling a fare for his gypsy cab at Heathrow, explaining, “I rescue those let down by the system”. With these casual words, Okwe announces that he’s about to play a role much larger than a taxi cab driver who gives people rides from Heathrow to London. Okwe is headed directly into a confrontation with the system that exploits the poor and rewards the rich without mercy. His determination to skirt the system begins to crumble when the young Turkish woman, Senay (Audrey Tautou), who has rented him her couch for sleeping gets routed by the immigration police for giving him, an illegal alien, refuge. He worsens her already poor status, lowers her from a decent job as hotel maid to a sweatshop seamstress where her boss demands oral sex during work breaks and endangers her sanity. She goes to their hotel boss, Sneaky (Sergei Lopez) for help, desperate for a passport to America and willing to do anything. As if things weren’t bad enough already, Sneaky makes her a victim in a deadly game from which only Okwe, breaking out of his safe haven of anonymity and acting as a doctor, can save her. Not just dangerous to his being found out and exported for mysterious criminal acts in Nigeria, rescuing Senay will make him part of the system he abhors — the one that “lets people down”, denigrating human value and exploiting desperation.

Almost a fable, Dirty Pretty Things is about a man in exile. Although Okwe has a country and a religion, he is no one no where. He lives, as we find him, as an illegal immigrant in London. He earns just enough as a cab driver by day and a hotel clerk by night to rent the couch of young Turkish woman, herself a marginal immigrant. He comes from Nigeria. He’s been trained as a doctor but through circumstances beyond his control, he cannot practice nor can he go home. Okwe may rest but he never sleeps. He is a man who must stay awake to survive. Awake, on his toes and ready for just about anything.

It is the feeling of Okwe being singularly alone, self-contained without reference, that lifts his story above the norm. With an intuitive knowing that this will be no ordinary David and Goliath computerized concoction of evil bearing down on good, we watch Okwe’s every move, wondering what will become of him – and us, as a consequence of our identification with his choices. We may feel vulnerable but we’re fascinated.

Okwe is the orphan left on the rock to survive, in the bull rushes or the wilderness at the mercy of strangers, animals and invisible spirits. The story is set for disaster. It is only in Okwe’s choices that hope resides, not just for himself but for those around him. We wince a bit at Okwe’s strict unwillingness to be corrupted by a system promising to line his pockets with gold. He won’t take a tip from his boss to be quiet about suspicious events but he’ll steal drugs from a state run hospital to relieve fellow taxi drivers from the clap. Real lives hang in the balance as Okwe drives a cab through empty days, slides through his nights as a desk clerk in a hotel where no one is who they seem to be.

Stripped of material goods, serious work and the comfort of family, Okwe carries his loneliness as a spiritual aloneness. He doesn’t whine. He observes. And, while an outraged sadness may fill our eyes with tears as we accompany him into the underbelly truths of people who have no means, we like watching Okwe. Like a modern day Siddartha, Okwe puts his faith in his ability to think, wait and fast as he, a man without place or identity, seeks to solve the mystery of a human heart stuffed down a toilet.

Come on. That metaphor can’t be missed. A man living by the seat of his pants midst big city squalor finds a heart – cut from some anonymous someone somewhere – in the toilet? His, ours, theirs — right? Quite a cast of strangers. It’s the Turkish girl’s heart, the taxi driver’s who hails from all over the world, the greedy doorman’s, the sleazy hotel boss’s, the legendary prostitute’s and all the lost people who come and go through a hotel’s revolving door. That heart stuck in the toilet is the heart of the matter for the disenfranchised. And this is a story about the matter of choice when there is no choice, a choice made against all odds.

Dirty Pretty Things delves into the act of personal choice, asking hard questions. Once the human heart has been trashed, sacrificed, bought and sold in a parking lot somewhere, can it be preserved, somehow, by small acts? Do small, everyday choices make a difference? When ethics, integrity and compassion are on their way to a sewer in a compromised society, can they be resurrected, made more than a source of pride, solace for lost souls walking into dead ends? Is there just some chance that choices made from the heart could be useful, even effective in places of great adversity and times of great danger? They’re worthy questions, begging for better answers than bombs. And it’s more than nice to see Stephen Frears throw his beautiful idea up on the big screen for our contemplation. It’s special.

And then there’s that other metaphor, the chess game where planning ahead, anticipating your opponent’s next move makes or breaks the outcome. Okwe’s a master chess player, moving in seconds while his opponent and good friend, Guo Yi (Benedict Won), moves at double slow speed. Guo Yi ekes out his subsistence in the basement of a hospital as a porter in the morgue. Lest we miss his significance as a prophet ferrying the dead, Guo Yi sews the suit pockets of an anonymous dead Chinese man shut so he can’t take bad luck with him to the hereafter. In a small, unnecessary act of kindness, Guo Yi bestows eternal happiness with a needle and thread.

Settle in. Slow down. You are entering a magical place where dead men and women get a second chance. Follow Okwe’s moves as he shows how an invisible man navigates the darkness of a system that cannot be fixed. To put Senay in safety, Okwe takes her to his friend’s basement refuge. But she cannot live among the dead and soon finds herself in even greater danger. Of course, Guo Yi sees instantly that Senay and Okwe love one another and that Okwe will do whatever he can to find a way out for her. True to his nature as philosopher ferryman, Guo Yi gladly assists Okwe in a deadly game of chess that could, if played well, set Senay free. If played well and flawlessly, Okwe might escape as well. But ready yourself for a surprise because this chess game is being played in the bowels of the earth where morphing is commonplace. By mythical account, the underground is where personal identity can dead-end into a brand new beginning.

And then, to keep Dirty Pretty Things pretty funny, there’s that spunky prostitute, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), who put the whole tale in motion by telling Okwe where he could find the heart. Then, there she is, sitting on the side of the tub with Senay at the eleventh hour and joking, “Ah, so here we are. The virgin and the whore”. As the caper comes to a close, it’s Juliette who raises a finger, identifying herself as the carrier of an everlasting truth blowing in the wind of an underground parking lot. Invisibility is in the eyes of the beholder.

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