Dirty Pretty Things: Stephen Frears' Hotel Thriller

Amélie's in trouble, but Stephen Frears has found just the guy to save her in this satisfying little crime flick.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. No, wait, give them to that other guy...Stephen Frears, whose most successful films (in an up-and-down career) have always returned to the gutter. And I mean that in the best sense. Though the director is every bit a part of England's posh Oxbridge establishment, 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette, 1987's Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and 1990's The Griftersin which he finally hopped the Atlantic and landed deep in a puddle of noirall share the same demotic charge and sympathy. I don't think Frears subscribes to the notion, common to his lefty peers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, that the underclass necessarily leads more interesting, dignified lives than the London toffs and swells who take them for granted; he's too much the storyteller for that. But he recognizes that it's friction between classes, the barriers to entry and mobility (so foreign here but evidently still felt in the U.K.), that makes for good stories. So it's appropriate that Dirty Pretty Things (which opens Friday, Aug. 1, at Seven Gables and Uptown) should be set in a swank London hotel staffed almost entirely with illegal immigrants desperate not to be noticed. These janitors, busboys, maids, and desk clerks aren't just lower class, they're non-class, unclassifiable, uncategorizable in their polyglot patois of almost-English speech. Their accents hint at infinite hardships, journeys in steel shipping containers and car trunks from desperate Third World poverty to somewhat less desperate European poverty. They've arrived, but they aren't accepted. They're merely tolerated and exploited so long as they provide low-wage labor: dusting, sweeping, cleaning up the condoms after the whores and their clients check out, pulling human hearts out of overflowing toilets. It's this latter discovery that propels Things from a study of the downtrodden into a nifty little crime movie, as its hero, Nigerian cabbie/night clerk Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), examines the organ with a professional eye. He's a doctor back home, so he knows a thing or two about surgery, but the Baltic Hotel is no hospital. As a brassy, sympathetic Cockney hooker (Sophie Okonedo) tells him, "People come here to do dirty things." Okwe's got a mystery to solve, yet he's so sleep-deprived from working two jobs that he chews enough quat to be hallucinating. Is the heart real? Real enough to suggest the presence of an organ-sales scheme being run out of the establishment by hotel manager Juan, aka "Sneaky" (the wonderfully, unctuously evil Sergi López from With a Friend Like Harry). IT'S NO GOOD having a hero or a villain without a damsel to save from the villain's clutches, and Things does adhere strictly to formula in this regard. ("I am here to rescue those who have been let down by the system," Okwe jests to a fare in his cab, which pretty much sums up the movie.) A hotel maid and colleague of Okwe's, Senay hails from Turkey, and she's very much the type in need of rescue, since she's played by the alluring Amélie herself, Audrey Tautou, in her first all-English-speaking role. In an endearingly creaky movie gimmick, Okwe and Senay share the same flat, with only one key and bed between them, but they chastely work different hotel shifts and scarcely see each other. Are they secretly in love? C'monwhat do you think? This is a movie, for cryin' out loud, and when Tautou bats her big, brown movie-star eyes, no man is going to resist her. Yet Okwe is a man with a Past; he's "an angel," says the hooker, but he's a sad angel who hides behind his virtue. The English-born stage actor Ejiofor, whom some will remember from Spielberg's Amistad, gives Okwe a handsome, pensive, brooding quality that you can't always separate from sheer exhaustion. He refuses to play up his character's heroism, as if Okwe's old secrets have burned his idealism into coal. It's the kind of aw-shucks heroic turn you could imagine Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart playingand the scrupulously well- constructed and traditional Things does bear a few traces of Casablanca. (Hotels and saloons are both the haunts of marginal, transitory characters; and how many patrons who came to Rick's also lacked proper immigration papers?) Recently on view in L'Auberge Espagnole, Tautou here continues her sensible flight against Amélie's pixie-esque typecasting. Her Senay is a drab, dowdy doormat, a woman wearing the veil even when she's not. Naturally vile Sneaky is drawn to hernot just for the sake of busting her cherry but for the sheer pleasure of being cruel to her. The same thing happens at her second job in a sweatshop, where Senay's awful Sydney Greenstreet-like boss looms at her like an iceberg with an erection. She invites it somehow, bringing out the best and worst in guys. It's the flip side to Okwe's muscular goodness, the defenseless decency of kittens, children, and virgins (which Senay is). Although it's quite welcome at this point in a machine-produced, comic-book-dominated summer, Things is not a major film. Once its characters are skillfully sketched and established, it takes on a fairly predictable trajectory. The ending has twists, but I doubt Frears believes they're twists we haven't seen before. It's a movie that ultimately depends on a device as old as forged passports (again, echoes of Casablanca), yet it's one that I found satisfying for its familiarity. You could call the picture immigrant noir, as the (white) authorities circle to deport every sympathetic character, with Bergman and Bogie wearing very different skin tones. There's even a Claude Rains figure in Okwe's sly Chinese pathologist pal (Benedict Wong), who gets all the best lines. Among them is a fitting motto for the film: "There's nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man." bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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