Stephen Frears again focuses on that “other” London — the part largely unseen by tourists, the part that the city’s immigrant community lives and works in. In the English filmmaker’s breakthrough movie, 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette,” Frears mined something heartfelt and witty out of the burgeoning romance between a London punk and a young Asian man who do their best to survive some mean streets.
Frears' latest film, “Dirty Pretty Things,” shifts its attention to the kind of midrange hotel that London features in abundance. But beneath the Baltic Hotel’s would-be sheen exists a black market in body organs that can literally be said to test the heart, since it is the discovery of a human heart in a blocked toilet that serves as the plot’s catalyst.
Frears and screenwriter Steven Knight are on to a broad, rich topic for a film that charts so unusual a path that one almost always feels kindly disposed toward it even while wishing at numerous moments that it were better and more sharply written.
Illegal immigrant Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a doctor on the run from his past in Nigeria, finds a roomie and friend in Senay (Audrey Tautou) — the 22-year-old Turkish hotel maid who joins Okwe’s improbable crusade against the organ-harvesting scheme overseen by hotel manager Juan (Sergi Lopez), also known as Sneaky.
Monitoring activities from the front desk, Okwe wastes no time identifying the troublemakers, while juggling his night job with daily life as a cabbie (“I’m here to rescue those who have been let down by the system”) and dispenser of medical advice — and antibiotics — to some of his fellow hacks suffering from STDs. (His medical training proves to be repeatedly useful.)
It’s Senay in whom Okwe confides when he comes across the bloodied heart, a condition that Senay herself risks suffering in her affections for Okwe.
Knight’s script ultimately turns “Dirty Pretty Things” into a thriller of sorts that’s both sentimental and contrived.
Tilting towards kitsch
The movie is at its best when charting an England where virtually no one is English, a melting pot in which a fresh identity is the liberation offered by a London that can otherwise be fairly grim. (Senay, for instance, lives in constant fear of the two bullying immigration officials who can at any minute storm the tiny apartment where she has offered Okwe a sofa.)
Less satisfying are the maneuverings of a story that overstates the obvious (“It’s time you woke up from your stupid dream,” Okwe tells Senay, who’s smitten with visions of settling in New York) and has to jump through some incredible hoops en route to a happy ending.
Another problem is that the supporting cast sometimes tilts toward kitsch — and caricature: Zlatko Buric as the bawdy Russian hotel doorman, and Sophie Okonedo as a hooker with a heart of gold.
Still, the leads make a lovely, fresh-faced pair throughout.
French actress Tautou — her wide eyes forever absorbing whatever new twist the tale throws at her — is impressive.
And English theater veteran Ejiofor has the emotional range to supply the heart to a film that shows an actual one gone missing.
Amid the dirty goings-on of a daily routine that would drag most of us down, he suggests that life for Okwe may one day approach the pretty, after all.