Katherine Lee only ever presented one film at Cinema 1544 before she went and started having children, completely precluding the opportunity for any further presentations. And as such, she might just have the highest batting average of anybody. Her one film, which I had only heard rumor of when she presented it, was Dirty Pretty Things, the gritty 2002 thriller from Stephen Frears. Looking through, Frears has had a very unusual career. He started out doing directing mostly BBC television films, then hit some critical acclaim with My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons in the mid-late ’80s. The ’90s brought pretty much nothing of consequence but then he turned it around in 2000 with High Fidelity followed by the current film. Since then, his success has been focused on dramas like The Queen and Philomena. It’s a very diverse career, with some very high-quality work interspersed with a bunch of bleh.
Anyway, enough of musing about Frears, time to live-review Dirty Pretty Things! (The following feature is rated “R”, for “Really good”!)
Okwe is a illegal Nigerian immigrant in London – a former doctor who is trying to make his way however he can, as a taxi driver, late night hotel manager, fishing a human heart out of an overflowing toilet, you know, the regular stuff. Wait, what?!? A human heart? So that’s when you know this movie is going to get serious, kind of like Danny Torrance saying “Tony is the little boy who lives in my mouth” in The Shining. It’s the Rubicon that drastically shifts your mood, and you can’t go back.
Okwe’s boss Juan is not much impressed by the discovery of a vital organ in the loo. “People come to hotels in the middle of the night to do dirty things, it’s our job to make them pretty again.” Or some such paraphrase. (Actually, he’s not much impressed because he’s in on it!) He holds Okwe’s illegal status over his head to prevent him calling the police. Of course, it’s not just the illegal status – he is a wanted man in Nigeria. He uncovered some governmental scandal and in retaliation not only had his house firebombed but he was also accused of his wife’s death which resulted from the fire.
Okwe’s living arrangements are also quite odd – he is renting a couch from a beautiful hotel maid Senay (herself a passportless Turkish immigrant), but she doesn’t allow him to be there when she is. They arrange elaborate key drop offs in order to share the apartment. She’s suspicious of just about everybody (including Okwe) but he is working on establishing some sort of relationship with her.
After he convinces her to eat a home-cooked dinner, she has a key made for him and things begin to normalize. But it appears that immigration enforcement is onto Senay – on terms of her visa she is not allowed to work or collect rent and they think she’s doing both. (Side note – how the heck is she supposed to live? “You’re not allowed to make any money while you are here. Your choice is to starve or leave.”) They come to the hotel to watch the maids check in, hoping to catch her, but Okwe and another worker manage to head her off at the pass.
But when Okwe comes upon a Somali man in medical distress in his boss Juan’s office at the hotel, he investigates and finds that the man has had his kidney removed – at the very hotel – in exchange for English citizenship. It appears we have an underground organ-trafficking business going on. Okwe can’t really do anything about it not only because of the threat of deportation but the fact that he’s a wanted man back in Nigeria. And his hotel boss, having found out that he is a doctor whens he treats the Somali man, is trying to get Okwe in on the business. Okwe, always full of conscience, refuses and walks out on the night clerk job.
Having lost her job in the hotel, Senay has meanwhile taken up a job in a sweatshop. Things start moving when, in Senay’s words, “He said he would report me to immigration and he make me suck, but today I bit, I bit!” Well. Senay makes an admission of love to Okwe, but he shoots her down hard. So what does she do? Desperate, she goes to Juan, ready to give a kidney for a passport and a chance to get to New York. Okwe finds out, and tells Juan he will perform the operation himself in exchange for his own passport – it’s the only way he can be certain that Senay won’t be butchered.
But it really turns out to be the greatest double-cross of all time. After getting the passports, he tells Juan that he needs him as an assistant, slips him a mickey, and takes Juan’s kidney instead. Passports – check. £10,000 – check. Evil organ trafficker down one kidney – check. And the film ends with Okwe and Senay going their separate ways, she to New York and he to Nigeria where his new identity will allow him return to his daughter (with that little opening that he might try to follow Senay to New York someday).
The funny thing is that I think this was a better film the first time around than the second. A lot of the success of the film relies on being drawn into this underground world and figuring out just how deep it goes. That, of course, is not really a surprise once you’ve seen the film once. The rest comes mostly from the double-cross. But the thing is that the first time I watched the movie, it was tense. When Okwe breaks his moral code to act as the surgeon for Senay’s operation, it’s believable, which makes the double-cross that much more exciting. And somehow I remembered the details of the double-cross feeling so touch-and-go – you had to know it was going to succeed, but I remember being on the edge of my seat. But the second time, it was much more clinical. What was going to go wrong? Well, the answer is that once Juan got slipped the mickey, there was really no further obstacle to success. I mean, the one guy who knows what’s going on and could mess everything up…is under anaesthesia. If you had asked me two hours ago if Okwe and Senay had made a narrow escape, I’d have said yes. And I’d have been wrong. In the end it was a can of corn. And the ending is a bit sappy, though I suppose that’s not to be avoided.
I’m not saying it was a bad movie – not by any means – but maybe it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it. It’s one of those rare films that don’t really improve on second viewing, that’s all.