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With: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou
Written by: Steven Knight
Directed by: Stephen Frears
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, disturbing images and language
Language: English
Running Time: 97
Date: 09/05/2002

Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Dirty' Dances

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A groundswell of moviegoers has lately expressed their disdain toward the saucer-eyed French gamine Audrey Tautou. I imagine the same thing might have happened to her namesake Audrey Hepburn, who became a star and an Oscar-winner overnight after her first starring role in Roman Holiday (1953). Any meteoric rise will always be accompanied by disgruntled naysayers.

The distributors of Stephen Frears' new film Dirty Pretty Things are using Tautou's mug front and center to advertise their movie, which is both a good and bad thing. One the one hand, Tautou does not play the main character, and on the other hand, she plays a different kind of character from her usual smiling pixie that so many people seem to hate.

This ad campaign will accomplish two things: it will drive away Tautou's detractors from seeing an otherwise good movie, and it will convince Tautou's fans that she's even better than we thought she was.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Amistad) is the actual star of Dirty Pretty Things, playing Okwe, a hard-working cab driver by day and hotel desk clerk by night. In reality, Okwe has illegally immigrated to London from Lagos, Nigeria, where he was a surgeon.

He rooms with the Turkish Senay (Tautou), and they try to keep opposite schedules and avoid each other in public (she works at the same hotel as a maid).

As the film begins, Okwe tries to plunge a stuffed-up toilet and finds -- of all things -- a human heart. It turns out that the hotel is being used for an underground organ-donor ring. Immigrants in desperate need of money subject themselves to backroom operating tables so that they can collect a tidy sum for their livers or kidneys. The trouble is, the patients rarely survive the recovery. In one scene, Okwe visits one man with a life-threatening infection.

It's all too convenient that Okwe just happens to be a surgeon himself, and winds up being blackmailed into participating in this gruesome endeavor. But director Stephen Frears -- whose best films include My Beautiful Landrette, The Grifters, The Snapper and High Fidelity -- is a highly skilled artist who knows how to smooth such things over by adding a strong sense of place and time, as well as a life pulse.

Not only does Frears dress this London with a palpable sense of place and time -- and even a kind of rank smell and rough touch -- but he also coaxes deeply affecting performances out of his stars. Ejiofor avoids too much nobility and just the right amount of humanity. When DEA agents storm the hotel to find illegal immigrants, he must remain at the desk, pretending as if nothing were wrong. His face says it all; paranoid, terrified, and above all, exhausted.

Above all, Tautou manages a real actor's performance, rather than relying on her cartoonish adorableness that Jean-Pierre Jeunet used so well in Amelie. She's just as exhausted, and just naive enough to cling to the barest fabric of a dream -- and just smart enough to know that it's not going to happen.

Screenwriter Steven Knight's (the creator of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire") ending ties Dirty Pretty Things off in a too-neat little bow, but until then it's a brilliantly effective sneak into one of society's more lurid and alluring underbellies and an even more desperate snatch at the Dream.

DVD Details: It strikes me that Dirty Pretty Things plays much better on home video than in the theaters. It has such a great title that video store browsers might actually reach for it. Plus, the rather obvious, coincidence-based plotilne is somewhat softened by the smaller viewing experience. The DVD also comes with a Stephen Frears commentary track, a making-of featurette and an optional French-language track (Tautou provides her own voice). Bonus trailers include Amelie, American Gun, The Magdalene Sisters and Veronica Guerin. It's mastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital and presented in its 1-to-1.85 theatrical aspect ratio.

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