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Dirty Pretty Things

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Dirty Pretty Things
from Film Forum, 08/07/03

When the government turns a blind eye and crime rules the streets, who is the most dangerous person? Answer: A righteous man. That's the theme of Dirty Pretty Things, the compelling new slow-burn thriller from director Stephen Frears.

Frears never makes the same movie twice. Having helmed projects like My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, and High Fidelity, he is clearly one of the most versatile and unpredictable directors working today. His latest is yet another change of pace. It is also one of his best films, and one of the most original thrillers to come along in years.

Dirty Pretty Things is about a contemporary nightmare. We are drawn into the anxiety-heavy existence of desperate overworked immigrants—some legal, some otherwise—trying to survive in the overlooked areas of the big city. This particular story takes place in London, but Frears's avoidance of familiar landmarks keeps you from dwelling on that fact. The plot is populated with the people who are willing to do the jobs most people refuse. They are, in a way, invisible and taken for granted.

But Frears avoids the curse of films about social dilemmas. By making the film a thriller that echoes such classics as Blue Velvet and Casablanca, he gives us a suspenseful, romantic, and sharply funny story of ethical dilemmas behind closed doors.

The story follows Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor of Amistad in a powerful, stoic performance) as a Nigerian immigrant trying to dodge the immigration police even as he tries to interrupt a sinister criminal operation going on in the fancy hotel where he works as a desk clerk. But the closer Okwe gets to solving the mystery, the closer he brings himself to deportation. Worse, when his malevolent employer (Sergi Lopez) finds out about the woman close to his heart (Audrey Tautou of Amelie), he must risk his life in order to save her from the hands of cruel and manipulative opportunists.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) writes, "Steven Knight's well-crafted script builds suspense alongside character development. Strong performances certainly add to the sleek allure of this strange blend of film noir with a little twist of black comedy. But it is just as much a rather heartbreaking look at abused aliens with little recourse but disturbingly desperate measures."

Jerry Langford (Movieguide) calls it "an absorbing story with likable characters facing real-life dilemmas. The situational ethics are worthy of much discussion following the movie. [The film] is seriously marred by moral relativism, which attempts to argue that the ends justify the means. Also, the characters begin to lose spiritual faith and become their own saviors for their problems."

It is true that the hero makes a point that he has "no religion." But I would argue that the film is not marred by portrayals of unethical behavior. The film gives us characters making very believable decisions, and while we may not agree with their choices, we are not being encouraged to behave unethically. On the contrary, if the film has any agenda at all, it is to awaken us to the needs of the underprivileged. It should inspire compassion and care, not vigilante justice.

Langford is right when he writes, "The plight of illegal immigrants presented [here] is a deeply moving story, which should genuinely motivate Christians to reach out to these needy and downtrodden people. Christ died for these people, and Christians should be prompted to love them into his kingdom."

Many mainstream critics are applauding the film as one of Frears's finest, perhaps one of the best films of the year.

from Film Forum, 09/04/03

Regarding Stephen Frears' thriller Dirty Pretty Things, Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The movie realistically, sometimes graphically, portrays immigrant life. [It] deserves a strong R. The more brutal images in the film, although almost never explicit, are still disturbing. Even what is implied is often hard to take, particularly as [the heroine] faces sexual abuse by several employers. But the best scenes in the film show [the hero], by contrast, exhibiting a quiet resolve, intelligence, and compassion that guide him through this grimy underworld."