From the moment the camera spots Okwe soliciting fares at a London airport, you can see he's no ordinary African cabbie. More than freshly laundered, impeccably groomed and well-spoken, Okwe has bearing. He knows he's more than the equal of his potential customers, and it's clear he understands a good deal more about them than they'll ever know about him.
In other words, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a man with a mystery, and a secret or two to his name. So director Stephen Frears spends the first half of Dirty Pretty Things slowly unraveling Okwe's story, as well as the new stories that are bound to attach themselves to him.
It's a fascinating path into this literate, darkly comic romantic thriller, a hike through the jungle of the new multicultural London -- a city of immigrants themselves seemingly divided into predators and prey. But at the same time, Dirty Pretty Things is one of those movies that starts out so strongly it can't help but disappoint you when it turns out to be merely decent.
Dirty Pretty Things is a film a bit at odds with itself, though not as much at odds as it is with its own promotional poster, from which Ejiofor's costar, the French actor Audrey Tautou, gazes seductively in a nudish pose. In the film, Tautou plays Senay (sha-NIGH) , a young Muslim Turkish immigrant whose defining traits include chastity and powerlessness.
Senay is a maid at the posh hotel where Okwe -- his second job -- is night deskman. She also rents him the couch in her little flat (though he never really sleeps), which like her own job is another major violation of her visa, and a threat to her dream of emigrating to America. The night doorman is a transplanted Muscovite named Ivan, while Okwe's boss is an arrogant Spaniard nicknamed Sneaky (Sergo Lopez). Immigrants all, just like the dispatcher and drivers at the taxi shop where Okwe is conscripted to diagnose and treat the burning sensation his coworkers get when they pee.
Okwe helps them out, perhaps firstly because his boss makes him, but also because he's actually a doctor -- trained in his native Nigeria, with some study time in the U.S. -- and also a good guy in a rough world. That last situation turns dramatic one night when Okwe is unclogging a hotel toilet and finds that the obstruction is a fresh human heart. Soon he finds himself and Senay perilously enmeshed in a black market where kidneys roughly harvested for transplant from donors living and willing -- if quite desperate -- can be redeemed for cash and passports.
Frears is an accomplished director whose interest in unassimilated Londoners goes back at least to his appraisal of the Indian-British community in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). On the surface, Dirty Pretty Things, written by feature-film newcomer Steven Knight, has a similar intelligence and wit, exemplified through the character of Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), the worldly hospital morgue attendant who's Okwe's friend and confidante. When Okwe tells him of the flushed heart, Yi advises, "Stick to helping people who can be helped." Then he turns down the sheet on another stiff.
If mordant, ironic humor is the film's capstone, its chief ornaments are its watchable stars, from the winningly deadpan Wong to pixie-ish Tautou (Amelie) , who looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones's more approachable kid sister. Best of all is Ejiofor, a British-trained actor whose big moist eyes and thoughtful brow radiate intelligence and compassion.
But Knight's script gives Frears and his actors both too much and too little to do. Our first glimpses into Okwe's world are insightful and funny, with little salvos of social commentary: In trouble with immigration officials, for instance, Senay loses her job and ends up on a sweatshop sewing machine, where her boss treats her even worse than do most of the other bosses in the film. But all the organ harvesting doesn't leave much room for the romance between Okwe and Senay to develop very convincingly. And while the literally pound-of-flesh black market does pose an interesting moral question -- how can an arrangement in which everyone gets what they want possibly be wrong? -- the plot starts to feel a bit too slick, less a comment on the difficult lot of immigrants than a slightly lurid premise for a thriller.
Still, Dirty Pretty Things has its pleasures. In one scene the script convenes, in the chilly winter air outside the morgue: Yi, an Asian-British morgue attendant and legal immigrant; the Nigerian Okwe, who's been blackmailed into performing black-market organ removal; and Senay, a Turk pursued by immigration cops -- one of whom looks Indian -- and prepared to cough up a kidney if that's what it takes to get to America (where, she doesn't seem to have heard, we have sweatshops too). It's a London that, say, Churchill probably wouldn't recognize, woven from the now-frayed borders spun by the fading empire he once oversaw.