Dirty Pretty Things. Miramax presents a film directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Steve Knight. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content, disturbing images and language). Starring Chiwetel Ejofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong.

Dirty Pretty Things

Director Stephen Frears is a friend of both the independent and mainstream movie-goer. Much like another contemporary director, Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence), Frears shifts effortlessly between mainstream Hollywood productions like High Fidelity and more obscure independent films like Liam. His latest feature, Dirty Pretty Things, is an independent film, and one of Frears's better efforts. By placing things such as character and story above action, Frears has crafted a singularly compelling motion picture - certainly one of the best yet of 2003.

It's modern-day London, and immigration laws have become much more extreme after 9/11. Any immigrant without the proper papers is hunted down, and just getting by is a full-time job. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejofor) is a Nigerian doctor living illegally in London. He just barely ekes out a living by working two jobs: during the day, he drives a cab; at night, he is the desk clerk at a local hotel. Okwe rarely sleeps, but when he does so, he stays at the house of his friend, Senay (Audrey Tautou). Senay is a legal Turkish immigrant, but under the terms of immigration, she is not allowed to work for six months. Despite the law, she works as a maid at the same hotel. During his tenure, Okwe discovers that the hotel's owner, Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), runs a black market organ trade. In exchange for a kidney, he'll give a free passport to anyone crazy or determined enough. He then sells the organ for a large sum of money. When Okwe confronts Sneaky with this information, he is offered a job. In exchange for performing the surgeries, Sneaky will provide both Okwe and Senay with passports out of the country.

DIrty Pretty Things unashamedly presents Frears's politcal opinion. He displays disdain for the current immigration process, lamenting the reduction of humans into nothing more than their nationalities. People are just people, he argues, not whatever country they hail from. Thankfully, the politics of Dirty Pretty Things never become overbearing. Instead of preaching, Frears occupies the London in the movie with people of all different colors. In fact, there is not a single major character that is white.

Despite being billed as a thriller, Dirty Pretty Things is more of a romantic drama. Both Okwe and Senay obviously feel for one another, despite never truly acting on their emotions. And, while the denouement may be too dark for the typical movie-goer, it plays out exactly as it should.

Both Chiwetel Ejofor and Audrey Tautou are exemplary in their respective roles. Ejofor brilliantly understates his performance as the world-weary Okwe. On the few examples where he lets his emotions out, we feel as if he is just purging his body of all the pent-up emotion. As Senay, Tautou effectively drops the pixie-ish nature of her Amelie performance, without losing any of her charm. Despite being French, her accent is fantastic; if I didn't know better, I would have sworn she really was Turkish. The two major supporting players, Sophie Okonedo and Benedict Wong are equally excellent.

As with any director, Frears has had his missteps - albeit very few. Dirty Pretty Things is not one of them. For people expecting a happy ending (like a kiss under the moonlight), or those who don't want any sort of political message with their entertainment, Dirty Pretty Things would not be a good choice. But for everyone else, even those who disagree with Frears's politics, this is an enlightening and oddly uplifting motion picture - it's not perfect, but in the crap pile of flashy, vapid movies that has defined 2003's summer, Dirty Pretty Things is a bright beacon of hope.

© 2003 Matt Noller