Dirty Pretty Things


Last month this film gave a resounding kick-start to the London film festival: a very entertaining, intelligent thriller from director Stephen Frears and scripted by Stephen Knight, the prolific TV writer who brought us, of all things, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? On second viewing it looks every bit as bright, though I think describing it as a film about asylum seekers makes it sound more earnest and less enjoyable than it really is - though this theme is what gives the film its generosity of spirit and also its intriguingly unlocatable tone. Knight's unusual script is an engrossing noir romance, couched in the language of both thriller and urban myth, and brought to life by three actors whose expertise is a joy to watch: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou and Sergi Lopez.

Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian "illegal" in London, hotel-portering by night, minicabbing by day, and all the time chewing dodgy herbal leaves to keep himself alert. Audrey Tautou is Senay, a young Turkish woman, also illegal, earning a pittance as a maid in the hotel where Okwe works, and the incomparably sinister Sergi Lopez is the hotel manager, who tells his employees that London hotels are places where strangers come to keep secrets, and wise people look the other way.

One morning, Okwe is brusquely instructed to clean up a room where a guest has been with a prostitute, and has to unblock a lavatory overflowing with blood - a gripping scene in which nausea gives way to astonishment, then fear as Okwe realises that the obstruction is caused by a human heart. That's a metaphor which encapsulates the film's unusual willingness to function both as horror story and love story. It's all heart.

From here, a creepy network of control is revealed, which relies on keeping asylum seekers and immigrants, desperate for an EU passport, real or fake, in a state of mendicant servility and fear. Owke and Senay have only each other to rely on; they begin the movie in a sweetly innocent brother-and-sister set-up, and their relationship deepens into a gallant affaire de coeur as Okwe tries to protect Senay from the grisly forces that encircle them both.

Frears' film has been criticised as being too broad-brush. I confess that sometimes Tautou's Turkish accent does make her sound like Alan Partridge's girlfriend Sonia, and it's true that the hotel's resident lovable tart, played by Sophie Okonedo, is a touch sentimentally conceived - though Okonedo has a nice comic touch which saves Okwe's final speech about London's invisible underclass from being too heavy-handed. Frears always keeps his drama on the right side of plausibility, if only by a whisker. With its caper-ish elements, it has more sugar in the mix than movies it resembles, like Mona Lisa, My Son the Fanatic or Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort. Yet Dirty Pretty Things has serious things to say about swinging 21st-century London - how it is "multicultural" chiefly in exploiting immigrant labour for the service economy.

Dirty Pretty Things is in some cinemas with Journey Man, an excellent short on a similar theme from the film-maker Dictynna Hood. A terrified stowaway from Sierra Leone, Mohammed (Usifu Jalloh) escapes from detention in Port Talbot and is taken in by a kindly pub landlady played by Ruth Madoc. A film with marvellous delicacy, humanity and charm.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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