Frears, the British director who made The Grifters and High Fidelity, has an affinity for people seen but unseen: record store owners, con artists. His breakthrough picture, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), was about London immigrants, and here's another. What's different is we don't see the rest of society, the characters who normally populate movies.
Frears isn't lifting a rock to show what is scampering beneath. It's not that kind of crime film. He's showing us the people on its fringes, servicing us, operating in plain sight, people we look right through; the ones standing on the sidewalk to grab a smoke break, holding court under fluorescent lights in all-night diners. Indeed, Frears adds another layer to that idea: 20 minutes into Okwe's London, you realize you haven't actually seen any white English people.
Okwe's other job is driving a taxi; passengers come and go and nobody notices him. He doesn't live in the United Kingdom per se. He lives in the service industry, and it's a shadow nation unto itself (with sister nations in every industrialized country) that no one in the upper strata likes to mention. But without it, the economy would collapse - this is one dirty pretty fact. Another is the third job Okwe holds, an ironic full-time profession: worrying the next rap on his door will be immigration agents. Okwe is an illegal. Others in his orbit are legals living in England who don't have work visas. Some are just legal, a lot are like Okwe - watching their backs.
But no one is from London, yet they have created their own community where the only thing they hold in common is that they are also from somewhere else, in exile together.
Okwe, however, is played by the revered British actor of Nigerian parentage, Chiwetel Ejiofor. You haven't heard of him; you'll certainly have trouble pronouncing his name (sounds like “CHEW-ah-tell E-GEE-o-for”). And yet Ejiofor could be our next, albeit unlikeliest leading man. He has what few actors can pull off: the ability to seem unflaggingly moral without seeming pompous. As the film goes on, we learn Okwe is a U.S.-educated doctor with kids who escaped Nigeria, and now lives in political exile, unable to reveal himself. His eyes hold something sad and unspoken; but as events get ugly, then menacing, he is rarer still: a just man.
At the core of the film are the details Frears skillfully delivers that linger in our heads: how Okwe moves from job to job, how he chews an herb to stay awake, how he sneaks into a chess match with a morgue worker (“Good at chess means bad at life”), and how he naps on the sofa of a chambermaid - a Turkish woman played by the French actress Audrey Tautou of Amelie. Tautou does an awful Turkish accent, but you'll forgive her if you also know the actress doesn't speak much English. Whenever something rises up in Dirty Pretty Things to roll your eyes, some other detail grabs you: how Okwe and his friends sell homemade sandwiches door-to-door when the hotel kitchen closes, how intense he can be.
How a human heart turns up in a toilet. That detail is dispensed in the brilliant opening, and becomes the engine sending Okwe in harrowing directions. Okwe is at his hotel desk and the same prostitute as every night glides by. She halfheartedly mentions that he might want to fix the plumbing in room 510. He checks it out and looks into the toilet, and plugging the pipes is a bloody heart. Okwe brings it to his supervisor, a man named Sneaky, and Sneaky says Okwe could bring it to the attention of the police, if he'd like - but no, he thinks not.
Something's wrong. Okwe has too much to lose. But how do you stay silent when more organs turn up and a conspiracy develops that threatens to pull him in? Okwe becomes an invisible man going about an invisible scheme (I'm not going to elaborate) that holds too much promise to be stopped. Frears effectively delivers two movies in one. He has a light touch that keeps the film moving even as it threatens to broaden what's intrinsically an intimate story - as if he doesn't quite trust the audience.
It's an English TV man, screenwriter Steve Knight, who brings an unspoken, morbidly funny cast to all this.
He helped create the original Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, and this is pure speculation, but I wouldn't be surprised if Knight has a knack for infusing a desperate air into every project he works on. Because he certainly knows a thing or two about peddling dreams.