“My bloomin’ feet! I’m lucky I don’t work standing up.” Laughing as she makes her way through the hotel foyer, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) waves goodnight to Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the desk clerk. Their brief exchange takes mere seconds, but their eyes — weary, knowing — convey a deeply felt, shared experience. Immigrants struggling to live in London, they’re night people, toiling when most everyone else, save for Juliette’s clients, is sleeping.
On its first level, then, Dirty Pretty Things is a film about beaten down, exhausted, tenaciously hopeful workers, lonely and dogged characters who labor at jobs that more privileged citizens wouldn’t think of doing. Okwe once had another life: he was a doctor in Nigeria, forced into exile (“It is an African story,” he says by way of explanation); now he watches the hotel desk at night, drives a cab during the day, and when pressed by fellow immigrants, provides minor medical care (say, treating his taxi dispatcher for the clap).
Okwe spends his few off hours playing chess with his morgue attendant friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), or napping fitfully on a couch in a flat rented by Senay (Audrey Tautou), a maid at the hotel. She has her own backstory, having fled an arranged Muslim marriage back in Turkey. Protective of her privacy (and her virginity) and appreciative of Okwe’s gentle chivalry, she’s in England on a temporary visa, which means she works illegally and lives in fear that she’ll be discovered.
And so, the film reveals its other levels, as it considers not only class disparities and the difficulties of poverty, but also the ways that self-interest or survival shapes actions. While director Stephen Frears has explored the plights of immigrants previously — in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) — Steve Knight’s script takes a particularly edgy, even surrealish tack, aided considerably by Chris Menges’s skritchy, smart cinematography, darting in and out of corners, revealing bits of street life and indicating emotional nuance.
All the urban immigrants in Dirty Pretty Things live hand-to-mouth, each day a test of patience, resilience, and, to some degree, moral fiber. Perhaps the most extravagant embodiment of this “test” is the hotel’s day manager, Señor Juan, also known as Sneaky (Sergi López). Crude and unscrupulous, he’s organized a black market in human organs (mostly kidneys), wherein he arranges visas, passports, and payments for people desperate to begin new lives elsewhere. He also sets up the surgeries, late at night in the hotel, often botched; when Sneaky accidentally learns that Okwe is a capable doctor, he tries to enlist his services, applying whatever underhanded pressures he can muster.
Sneaky — who is distressingly smart, if cynical — sees his own needs as primary as well as representative. When Okwe resists the illegal activities, he explains the necessary cunning of their charge as hotel workers: “The hotel business,” he says, “is a business of strangers. Strangers always surprise you. They come to the hotel at night to do dirty things; it’s our job in the morning to make it all look pretty again.” Okwe surely understands this structure, this set of classed-raced-gendered distinctions between haves and have-nots, describing himself and his coworkers as “the people you never see,” those laborers who drive, wait on, and clean up after the folks with money.
Illuminating the travails of the underclass isn’t news, but in Dirty Pretty Things, the focus is specific and increasingly absorbing. In part, this is a function of the uniformly excellent performances, but it also has to do with the details that define the characters, in particular, Okwe’s quiet friendship with Guo Yi, his gentle efforts to protect Senay, and his complicated negotiations with Sneaky. While Okwe embodies a recognizable integrity, he’s also forced to do work that he loathes.
At the same time, Senay reflects a familiar, if resilient, victimization, providing the film with a simplified emotional trajectory, even amid all its complexities of moral and political decisions. When a couple of immigration officers get wind of Senay at the hotel, she seeks employment elsewhere, a sweatshop where she’s forced to service the skeezy proprietor sexually, when he threatens to turn her in (“I just want you to help me to relax,” he mutters). Increasingly desperate, she dreams of the good life she’s heard about in New York City and begins to fall in love with Okwe. It’s easy to see how she might do either, but what’s most compelling is the disorder and confusion of her relationship with Okwe, as he proves too intricate and compromised a character to fit into a conventional resolution.
The film’s title, then, refers to many “things,” most simultaneously dirty and pretty. Not the least of these are the steps of daily existence, the endless cycles of scraping along to make rent or look after relatives. Entwined in these cycles are the bodies that are always at stake. Selling and buying, using and abusing bodies — in parts, in sex acts, in wretched and depressing labor — is the basis of capitalism. Most effectively, of course, bodies here are full of secrets and significance. As Juliette and Senay are paid for them, as Guo Yi and Okwe discuss their meanings, as Sneaky sells them (or pieces of them), bodies are deemed property, objects of trade, and perhaps, means to freedom.