Made in Britain: Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
We are now, apparently, “multicultural”. London is a veritable melting pot of different cultures, religions, races and whatnot drawing from a wide range of people on the planet who all contribute to the rich life that we live now. Or at least that would be what the spin would have you believe. In reality, Britain does have an immigration problem, and the asylum system is, to say the least, broken beyond all recognition with peoples from any war torn shithole in the world moving here with the promise of a better life and refusing to learn the language or integrate in to the community. Not all, I hasten to add, but when Mrs. Jarv worked in Camden Council it was interesting that for a wide section of the immigrant population the only English they knew was “Section 6” which refers to the exact piece of government legislation that gets them money. Yet, given how developed and tolerant and whatnot that we are, it’s surprising that we haven’t produced more films looking at life for these immigrants. Dirty Pretty Things is one of, if not the only, film I can think of that stares into the abyss populated by this underclass, a bleak and depressing look at the lives of people who have to exist below the radar.
Contains kidney heists and spoilers below
Actually, in all honesty, it isn’t surprising. There’s a clear reason, and it is because the majority of film-makers in the UK are left leaning and don’t want to look at the inevitable results of their dogma. They don’t want to consider what happens to the poor souls that come here; those that eke out a pitiful existence on the margins of society. Instead, they would rather sweep it under the carpet and instead talk about how much the amalgamation of culture is contributing to life in 21st Century London. The alternative is simply too unpalatable, and nobody wants to consider the reality of life in unrelenting poverty, surviving in crass desperation, where being a victim is almost a given.
Dirty Pretty Things opens in an airport (I think it’s Heathrow)where Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant working as an unlicensed minicab driver. The poor bugger is actually working several different jobs and limiting his own sleep, the most important of which is that he’s a receptionist at the Baltic Hotel. He’s friends with Turkish maid Senay (Audrey Tautou), a cleaner in the same building and she’s renting him couch space for the few hours that he can get some shut eye. After an encounter with Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a cheerful prostitute, he discovers a human heart flushed down the crapper in one of the rooms. He takes this to head concierge Juan (Sergi López), an utter scumbag running a series of appalling scams from the hotel. Not least of which, is that he’s exchanging passports from EU nations for the kidneys of illegal immigrants. Okwe finds out about this, and Juan begins trying to coerce him in to working for him, as Okwe was a doctor back in Nigeria. In the meantime, the immigration police are on to Senay, who is forced to take a horrific job in a sweatshop and provide oral relief to the fat disgusting Pakistani owner in exchange for him not shopping her to the cops. Eventually, Senay’s desperation mounts and she agrees to trade Juan her virginity and her kidney for a passport and a promise of a better life in America. Okwe, clearly in love with Senay, steps in and the pair turn the tables on the Spanish sleazebag. The film finishes with them parting company in Heathrow.
This is an incredible film. Part thriller, part drama, part social commentary, Dirty Pretty Things looks at a sleazy underside of modern Britain never considered in most of our Kitchen Sink films. Sure, we’re more than happy to wallow in urban misery, and cavort with unconvincing “Landan” gangsters who are never short of a quip on demand, yet we never look at life for an increasing proportion of our population. The daily grind of Okwe’s miserable existence, is followed mercilessly, as he falls asleep behind the wheel of his cab, chews some horrible plant to stay awake, and follows his mantra that for people like him it’s all about survival. Senay, on the other hand, has dreams: she wants to go to New York to live with her cousin and open a café, London is merely a stepping stone to allow her to procure the necessary UK passport. The reality of life for her is as bleakly grim as it is for Okwe, she lives in abject poverty, and a nice touch the film makes is pointing out the absurdity of a system where we allow people in, but don’t allow them to work for 6 months. Surely wanting to work, and not sponge off benefits, should be a prerequisite for entering the UK, yet it isn’t. This, as an aside, makes an absolute mockery of the claims of the far right, which are almost schizophrenic, about them coming here “to take our jobs” and simultaneously “sponge off the state” when they aren’t allowed to do either. Anyway, you find me the British person that wants to clean low-rent hotel toilets at 5 in the morning, because I doubt such a beast exists.
The acting here is all superb. Ejiofor is magnificent as Okwe, his big soulful eyes hinting at restrained misery and a deeper understanding than those around him. Tautou is a spectacular combination of wide-eyed innocence and increasingly frantic desperation, while Lopez is evil and sleazy as Juan. Interestingly, this was the first English language film for both Tautou and Lopez, and while his performance is very similar to the later turn in Pan’s Labyrinth, albeit less menacing, they are both incredibly accomplished in their parts, and if I hadn’t looked that up, then I wouldn’t have known that this was, effectively, their debut. Okonedo, on the other hand, provides the much-needed levity with a twinkle in her eye. She’s a smart mouthed hooker, confident to the hilt, bold and brassy and unashamed. She will, gladly, make the best of any situation and her appearances in the story really perked me up. She’s a ray of sunshine in an otherwise unrelentingly grim diaspora of modern London. As an interesting aside, practically none of the major characters of this film, possible exception to Juliette and Benedict Wong’s philosophical Guo Yi (even if he is incredibly tied in to the Chinese illegal community), are born in the British Isles, which is a nice touch to the movie, because this is not an ex-imperial guilt film. The depravities that take place are inflicted by one section of the immigrant community on another, and the only crime for the natives is that we are ignorant of it.
Dirty Pretty Things is also a harrowing film. Okwe’s initial discovery of the organ swapping operation is grim and unpleasant to watch, and the climactic kidney heist is astonishingly gruesome and intensely difficult on the screen. It’s not torture porn, because Juan is heavily sedated, but it is still very, very gory and operating at the upper end of what I can tolerate. Nevertheless, the most harrowing scenes, for me, in the film, are Okwe dealing with the fallout from the kidney operation where the only person in a room full of Somalians with a grasp of English is an 8 year old girl. That this situation, which I know from personal experience, does exist is shameful, for both us and the immigrant population. This has created whole marginalised communities, whose only contact with modern Britain is when begging for money, conducting robberies to make ends meet, and who could not be more removed from our society. This is what’s sad about the reality of asylum seeking in the UK: we let them in and then don’t give a flying one about them once they are here, and I don’t consider a cursory monthly visit by a social worker as sufficient. Why do we not coerce them to learn English, for example, and why force them into begging from the state for emergency funding when they are in many cases willing to work and willing to do anything?Incidentally, this is something those thieving toerags from last summer’s riots should think about, and be ashamed of, because you think this community cares about Plasma screen TVs and the latest trainers from JJB Sports?
Dirty Pretty Things is clearly social commentary, but for the most part it manages to avoid lecturing the audience. The script by Steven Knight is clearly aware that this subject is an untapped goldmine, and as such he doesn’t need to have characters expound on their misery to rub our faces in it. We can see what they have to do to survive, we witness degradations and desperation of the characters, so we don’t need one of them to come out with a sermon about the misery of being part of the underclass. We just follow the characters on their daily lives, hiding from immigration, suffering assaults to their dignity to continue not even living, just existing in a country where they believed the streets were paved with gold but aren’t even paved at all. This is enough, and Stephen Frears, directing, also understands this, so when we do have to have a character talk about their misery, it’s discounted with a cheery line from Juliette, or the scene ends abruptly and moves on to the next event in their lives.
There is one exception to this, and it is so supremely jarring that I have to mention it as a negative. The culminatory scenes have two key lines in them from Okwe. The first is when confronting Senay in the graveyard and he explicitly spells out that for them there is no living, merely surviving. The second, however, is more out of place. In dialogue reminiscent of Fight Club, when asked about how come the organ trafficker has never seen him, Okwe replies:
“Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks. “
While this may be true, the film has already clearly made this point. Okwe has already fought his way through a tide of indifferent faces, stolen from a hospital by duty of the staff not noticing the cleaners and so forth. We know that him and his subsection of society are invisible, because we have (ironically) seen it, and I honestly think it’s a shame that the film was unable to keep its political heart off its sleeve for a few moments longer.
Overall, I strongly recommend Dirty Pretty Things. This is one of the best films that I’ve reviewed in this series, being a top-notch look at a section of life that is generally ignored. It is an absolutely gripping ride from start to finish, and while it does ask questions, for the most part the imagery on screen is very strong, the story is solid, and the acting stupendous. I unhesitatingly approve this film, and if you haven’t seen it, then dig it out.
Next up, sadly, is another piss poor Danny Dyer effort.
So until then,