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Dirty Pretty Things could hardly be farther from what I expected it to be. The movie poster, featuring Audrey Tautou gazing at the viewer over her own bare shoulder, underscored by the film’s title in cut-out ransom-note letters, looks as though it was made for a snarky, stylized thrill ride full of snappy dialogue and gleeful misbehavior, which the early aughts were chockablock with. Instead, the film is a tense, harrowing look at the lengths people have to go to in order to survive in a new country. Tautou, whose star was on the rise after Amelie, isn’t even the main character. She’s pivotal to the story, but our guide through this world is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian immigrant with a dark past who makes a terrifying discovery one day at work.
Working the graveyard shift as a hotel desk clerk in London brings Okwe into contact with the full spectrum of humanity, from his aptly named boss Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), to the cheerfully dissipated doorman Ivan (Zlatko Buric), to a sunnily pragmatic prostitute named Juliette (Sophie Okonedo). He rents a couch to sleep on from Senay (Tautou), a Turkish Muslim refugee who is so devout that she refuses to be in the apartment at the same time as Okwe. Okwe and Senay are both on the run from immigration—he because he’s in the country illegally, and she because she can lose her refugee status if she gets a job or rents out her apartment.
One night Juliette suggests that Okwe check the room she’s just left. He unclogs the toilet to find a human heart. Okwe tries to investigate while still keeping his past a secret, but Sneaky discovers that Okwe was both a doctor and a wanted man in Nigeria and tries to blackmail Okwe into helping him sell kidneys on the black market. At the same time, Senay and Okwe form a bond as they try to protect each other from immigration officers and other predators.
What strikes me about Dirty Pretty Things is the way it fuses human rights drama with absurdist workplace comedy. The common denominator between the two genres is a bureaucracy that is by turns oppressive and backward. Senay lives in the UK legally but cannot support herself without getting deported. And Okwe is a doctor who’s forced to work off the books as a cabbie and a bellhop because he’s not supposed to be in London at all. Even more absurdly, Okwe has no one to turn to when he makes his gruesome discovery in the hotel bathroom. Everyone tells him to keep his head down and not to make trouble—the sort of admonition that’s chilling in a whistleblower drama but almost funny when it’s being made in the context of finding a vital organ in a toilet, minus its owner.
If this sounds bleak, it is; or at least Okwe and Senay’s situation is. But their relationship gives the film hope in a way that feels completely earned, because it’s based on both of them being good people who are sometimes forced to do bad things. There is nothing meet-cute-y or magical about why they fall in love. Instead, they each learn slowly that they can trust one another, even as the rest of their lives fall apart. Trapped between Sneaky’s illegal side business and overzealous immigration officials, they are forced to depend on each other for survival. The solution they come up with calls on all the luck and ingenuity they can muster, but it’s also satisfyingly believable. Ejiofor invests Okwe with a weary determination that feels all too real.
Dirty Pretty Things is not, at its heart, a preachy film, but it will make you pay attention to the people around you who you’re not supposed to see, the ones who stay in the background doing the jobs no one else wants.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.