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Foreign Transplants

 

Dirty Pretty Things

Stephen Frears, UK, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: September 19, 2003

By Eric Grossman

Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things is a thoughtful, contemporary thriller with a wholly international cast and an unflinching view of such unpleasant topics as human trafficking, rape, and the organ trade. In other words, it's a film Hollywood doesn't have the cojones to make. Thankfully, British director Frears (High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons), does, and he invests the film -- set against a backdrop of modern-day London, in all its drab glory -- with both balls and heart.

Admittedly, Frears owes credit for some of the former to Steven Knight's smart, gritty script. But the heart comes courtesy of Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a wrenchingly emotional performance. (There's also an actual human heart, found floating in a toilet, which rather unsubtly sets the film's tone early.) Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian illegal émigré who spends half his days driving a gypsy cab and the other half working the night desk at a non-descript hotel (to make ends meet, Okwe eschews sleep by constantly munching on a peculiar African root). Once Okwe's boss, the dastardly hotel manager Señor Juan (expertly played by the Spanish actor Sergi Lopez), catches wind that the Nigerian was a respected doctor before fleeing to the UK, he immediately attempts to enlist Okwe in an illicit organ transplanting ring.

A stoic, thoughtful man, Okwe immediately declines. But once he sees some of the desperate foreigners, including his friend and former roommate Senay, succumb to Señor Juan's offer -- a passport for your kidney -- he is forced to reconsider. Senay, adeptly played by the French actress Audrey Tatou (best known stateside for her sunny performance as the titular heroine of the French smash Amelie), is a study in sadness and humanity, and the virginal Turkish émigré's scenes with Okwe are alternately innocent and heartbreaking.

Knight, creator of the original British version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, deserves special kudos for defying Hollywood convention and keeping the central characters' budding romance strictly platonic. Also worth mentioning is Chris Menges' stark cinematography; in keeping with the storyline, he manages to cast a grim, funereal pall over one of the planet's most vibrant cities. But the movie is Ejiofor's, and the English-Nigerian actor should keep next February clear for the Oscars. Add a strong supporting cast (notably Benedict Wong as a wisecracking coroner and Sophie Okonedo as a clichéd but likeable hooker), plus a delicious final twist, and you have one of the best films of the year.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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