Over a career spanning 40 years, Stephen Frears has demonstrated versatility in his filmmaking rivalled only by Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. His directorial stamp is so subtle that you would have difficulty convincing the casual viewer that Dangerous Liaisons and High Fidelity were directed by the same man. With Dirty Pretty Things he returns to the gritty territory of My Beautiful Laundrette, and delivers what is possibly his finest film.
It's all too common for a film to boast about its 'gritty realism', with most such boasting being a hopeless cover for a preposterous storyline or sub-par shooting style. But even if Dirty Pretty Things felt the need to boast about such things, there would be no need for it. The world which Frears creates is so readily and shockingly believable that we don't need constant reminders that we are seeing might actually be based on fact.
Like much of his 1980s work, Dirty Pretty Things has an unassuming visual style. Chris Menges, who has worked with Frears extensively since Gumshoe, lights London completely naturalistically, with no effort made to glamorise the characters' surroundings or gloss over the dingier aspects of London. This is not a film which takes on a pertinent and sensitive subject only to hand it with kid gloves: it is frequently painful to watch, but in a way which is ultimately vindicated.
Dirty Pretty Things is about the British underclass of illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, who come over in their thousands ever year to do the jobs that no-one else will do. Though the film is nearly ten years old, the political issues it raises are still big hot potatoes; rarely a week goes by without the Daily Mail bursting blood vessels over immigration numbers or benefit cheats. But the film is layered and nuanced enough to make xenophobe reconsider, or at least to admit how lucky they are.
The central point of the film is that a capitalist society cannot function without an underclass of cheap labour which can be readily exploited. Whether they're driving taxis or cleaning toilets, the people in this underclass live virtually hand-to-mouth with no proper rights and no chance of police protection. They exist in a limbo state where the only choice is survival, by any means and at any cost.
Throughout the film several characters sell or attempt to sell one of their kidneys to Signor Juan (Sergi Lopez) in exchange for that most coveted of items, a British passport. This storyline allows the film to explore the workings of the black economy, again without either glamorising or outright condemning its participants. Signor Juan is presented as equally a monster and a twisted entrepreneur: as he says, "I'm an evil man, and yet I am saving a life." He is fulfilling the capitalist dream by making something of himself and earning money, but his success comes at the expense of innocent people who have no form of defence, legal or otherwise.
If Steven Knight's screenplay wasn't so adept at constructing characters, Dirty Pretty Things would quickly descend into melodramatic hogwash. Instead, the film is a screenwriting triumph, with Knight thoroughly deserving his Oscar nod. On the one hand, there are attempts made to differentiate between the different aspects or layers of the underclass: Okwe is an illegal immigrant, Senay is seeking asylum, and Guo Yi is an employed refugee. By showing their different circumstances and levels of security, the film avoids the trap of caricaturing the underclass as something to be pitied, and hence it never risks us losing trust in the story.
On the other hand, Knight's screenplay constantly resists becoming too generic. The storyline contains a number of mystery or thriller elements, with Chiwitel Ejiofor's sleepless protagonist bringing something of a film noir feel. But neither Frears nor Knight ever feel the need to crowbar the characters into an existing mould. Sophie Okonedo's prostitute may be pleasant, but she's not a hooker with a heart of gold.
The story of Dirty Pretty Things unfolds very economically, with a perfect sense of pacing which allows the characters to develop of their own accord. By setting most of the action in and around a hotel, we get a microcosmic view of the issues, so that the ideas never get so broad that they drown out the characters. For all the time you spend soaking up the political implications of their actions, you are mainly and constantly interested in the protagonists and whether or not they will survive the increasing number of ordeals put before them.
Because it treats its subject so honestly and truthfully (without being earnest or worthy), there are a number of scenes in Dirty Pretty Things which are uncomfortable to watch. One of the first scenes finds Okwe finding a human heart lodged in the u-bend of a toilet, a sight that will turn many a stomach. The surgical scenes are appropriately gruesome, producing the desired reaction of revulsion without feeling like they were just included for shock value.
Alongside this, however, the film is very good at catching us off guard at certain moments. There are several scenes where the story threatens to slip into cliché, only for the camera to cut and reveal something which sheds new light on what is happening. When Okwe first goes into the back room of the cab office, he is asked to get down on his knees. We think he is about to provide the man with oral sex, but it later emerges that he was a doctor examining him for venereal disease.
In a similar sequence, Senay is working in a sweatshop and asked to perform said act on the manager in return for keeping her on after the police have raided. Audrey Tautou sinks out of shot and the camera zooms in on the manager's face, which turns to a grimace after he is bitten. The recurring image of presumed oral sex could be seen as a metaphor for the position and status of illegal immigrants. On the surface we are the ones being pleasured and in control, when in fact they have at least as much influence, and we have no means of responding should the relationship break down.
This latter scene also hints at the presence of humour in the film. Rather than going down the route of being admirably grim, Frears acknowledges that the characters would use humour to get through their experiences. It is not a comedy, but there are a few moments which provoke a light chuckle, which in turn provides much by way of context and pathos. One such moment finds Senay eating a stew Okwe has cooked, and he remarks, "you can do many things with pork". Senay stops eating, being a Muslim and therefore forbidden to eat pork, and Owke continues, "of course, I used lamb."
The performances in Dirty Pretty Things are all first-rate. Sergi Lopez, best known for his role in Pan's Labyrinth, brings a sneering, snooty quality to the character while never slipping into pantomime. Audrey Tautou proves her range as an actress, giving a layered and subtle performance on a par with her work in Amelie. And Chiwitel Ejiofor is terrific, delivering every line with the right balance of conviction and nervous apprehension.
Dirty Pretty Things is one of Frears' finest efforts as a filmmaker and remains of the best films of the decade. Its intelligent handling of a difficult subject matter is complimented by its versatile treatment of its characters, culminating in an ending which is both valedictory and heart-breaking. On the basis of his subsequent output (Mrs. Henderson Presents, Cheri, Tamara Drewe), it may turn out to be the last great film Frears ever makes. But that cannot tarnish a remarkable viewing experience which has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.