Seventeen years after he made My Beautiful Laundrette, Stephen Frears takes London’s temperature again. Dirty Pretty Things is an ambitious, worthwhile drama digging into the spoil heap of the capital’s invisible underclass. And if that sounds about as glamourous and interesting as council housing, it is – until its hero, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers a human heart in a hotel toilet.
Okwe is a Nigerian doctor exiled in a London that tolerates him just so long as he keeps his head down. By day he’s a minicab driver, doing the odd bit of illegal prescribing to keep his fellow drivers clear of the clap they’re transmitting to each other like a relay baton. By night he’s a porter in a seedy hotel, making extra cash with an illicit room-service scam. Somewhere in the middle he’s grabbing a few zeds on the sofa he rents off fellow refugee Senay (a passably Turkish Audrey Tautou – of Amélie fame).
Then he discovers the human organ and realises the hotel he works in isn’t just the sort of place you come to for a quick bunk-up. Horrified, he informs the hotel’s manager, only to discover that the aptly named Senor Sneaky (a slippery Sergi Lopez) is at the centre of an organs-for-passports trade and that he wants Okwe’s medical skills to further his enterprise.
One Seattle critic found the whole notion of people waking up in lovely London, minus a kidney, in a bath full of ice too far-fetched, more urban myth than a plot ripped from the zeitgeist. But in August last year, just weeks before Frears saw his film open to huge acclaim, a Lewisham doctor was struck off for offering to procure an illegal kidney for a man who later turned out to be an undercover reporter.
The brilliance of this organ plot is that it transforms the film from wishy-washy social treatise into powerful noir thriller. Frears pulled off a similar trick with My Beautful Laundrette which presented a portrait of life among the dispossessed of mid-Eighties South London as a raunchy, if unorthodox love story.
Not that Frears is entirely responsible. The film was written by Steven Knight, who knows a thing or two about making drama – he was one of the team who created Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from the threadbare quiz-show format using little more than basic theatrical stagecraft.
Dirty Pretty Things was voted film of the year in the Evening Standard Film Awards last year, with Chiwetel Ejiofor taking the prize for best actor. Deserved accolades for a mature, enlightening and exhilarating piece of work.
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© Steve Morrissey 2003