Dirty Pretty Things

Dir: Stephen Frears, 2002. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo. Mystery/Thriller.
Dirty Pretty Things

Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood 

– M.I.A. “Galang”

In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.

He writes, “Drama without restraint is usually not very credible or very evident. More to the point – no restraint, no inhibitions, no guilt, no shame, no drama.”

I agree with him! Bring back shame! Bring back terrible secrets! You can’t do noir without something awful being slowly revealed to the audience. If your attempt at noir is all cigar chomping fatsos in fedoras playing dress-up then you have something like Gangster Squad which is supposed to be terrible and which I refuse to see. But in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things we have a competent, literate noir relevant to today’s world. And the awful reveal is almost the first thing we see. It all starts with a human heart clogging a hotel toilet. If only more movies could start like this! Echoes of Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) begin here.

Dirty Pretty Things, much like Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, is first-rate neo-noir. It takes place in a London that is entirely contemporary: a shadow London of immigrant networks existing just below the surface whose powerless inhabitants try to navigate and outsmart a predatory cabal of gangsters, immigration officers, and capitalist vultures who see them as easy prey to their own ends. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian doctor who comes to London and must work as a cab driver during the day and a hotel desk clerk by night. At the hotel he meets Turkish maid, Senay (Audrey Tautou). Both are mistreated by the oily hotel manager. He knows he can exploit immigrant labor with little to no oversight and he mistreats them both. He also oversees prostitution and drug deals at his hotel. But things start to get really sinister when Okwe sees the heart in the toilet.

Okwe discovers that his boss is overseeing a black market organ business in which desperate immigrants in London illegally agree to have their organs carved out for the promise of a fake work visa. Okwe, with his medical training, is roped in to the whole sordid mess with the promise of his own legal papers. Once he agrees we are plunged into a world of backroom kabob shop surgeries and vicious gangsters for whom the occasionally lethal consequences of harvesting organs is simply the cost doing business. Meanwhile immigration officers raise the stakes even higher for Okwe and Senay. But soon they team up with a Black British prostitute to double cross the hotel manager and turn the tables on the people making a living off of the poor and the desperate, the people without any rights who disappear without notice.

Although it was released in 2002 Dirty Pretty Things has only grown more relevant to our current hellscape of vulture capitalists and anti-immigrant hysteria. We always hear now how the 21st century world is so small and connected. Dirty Pretty Things makes the case that this is true – the 3rd world exists underneath the 1st world - but that our capitalist system sets up entire groups of people as a vital, if entirely dispensable, factor of our predatory system. As Okwe says to a doctor who wonders why he’s never seen him or Sena or the hooker in the hotel garage in the excellent, and entirely symbolic, last line of the film:

“We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. And clean your rooms. And suck your cocks.”

Dirty Pretty Things shows that noir can be done in the 21st century and maybe in a way more relevant than ever.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Sep 10, 2013 8:26pm
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