Just friends" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Although our culture tends to view such an arrangement as the emotional equivalent of getting a glass of warm milk instead of some much-desired rack of lamb, there is much to be said for the steadier qualities of true, unadulterated friendship. In fact, in the case of the two illegal immigrants - one Turkish, one Nigerian - in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, "just friends" is the key to their very survival. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) drives a taxi during the day, works at the Baltic Hotel at night, and, whenever possible, catches a few hours of sleep on the couch belonging to one of the maids at the hotel, Senay (Audrey Tautou). Their arrangement is secret, and Senay risks deportation if Okwe is discovered staying there. Although they are not romantically entangled, they rely on each other for not only rent or a place to stay but also for some sense of connection in an unfamiliar, harsh environment.
Frears gives us a version of London we don't often see - that of a service sector comprised of illegal aliens trying to get legal and an underground system that preys on their situation. When Okwe goes to investigate a clogged toilet in one of the hotel's rooms and finds there a human heart, he goes to his supervisor only to be told to mind his own business. "You will learn, Okwe, that the hotel business is about strangers. People come to hotels, in the night, to do dirty things," the supervisor tells him. "In the morning, it's our job to make things pretty again."
Although the marketing department clearly hoped to trade on the enormous success of Am & eacute;lie (the movie poster and the DVD cover show Audrey Tautou in a suggestive, bare shoulders pose), the real draw in this movie is the relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor. Don't get me wrong - Tautou is very good in this, and it was wise of her to take on such a gritty project. But Ejiofor is mesmerizing in his scenes, subtly conveying dignity, weariness and gentle affection with little more than his eyes and slight shifts in his bearing. It is just that restraint and subtlety, in fact, that makes Dirty Pretty Things so memorable. Even when Okwe gets to the bottom of things, even when the movie ends with retribution more or less delivered, the viewer is left with questions unanswered and a sense of remaining mystery as complex, perhaps, as love itself.
Publication date: 04/15/04