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(2003) (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou) (R)

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Drama: Several immigrants try to live their clandestine lives in London while dealing with the discovery of an organ donor ring that's being run out of the posh hotel where they work.
Okwe (CHIWETEL EJIOFOR) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant who works in a posh London hotel run by Juan (SERGI LOPEZ). Despite being a doctor, the only jobs Okwe can get are driving cabs and running the hotel night desk where he works with doorman Ivan (ZLATKO BURIC) and often sees local hooker Juliette (SOPHIE OKONEDO) passing through.

When he's not working, he hangs out with his Chinese friend, Guo Yi (BENEDICT WONG), who works in the local morgue, and shares an apartment with Turkish immigrant Senay (AUDREY TAUTOU) who's a daytime maid at the same hotel. She's quite skittish about immigration officials and doesn't want anyone to know she and Okwe are sharing a flat, despite nothing romantic happening between them.

Things take an interesting turn when Okwe discovers a human heart in a guest room's toilet. Juan tells him to mind his own business, but Okwe soon uncovers a black market organ donor ring that's being run out of the hotel. In exchange for forged passports and other immigration papers, illegal immigrants "donate" organs needed by sick people.

With immigration officials closing in on both of them, Okwe and Senay attempt to avoid them, all while trying to figure out how to deal with the organ donor ring and its complicated consequences.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Other than native Indians, everyone in America either came from another country or is a descendent of someone who immigrated here in the past. Yet, many of those Americans who call this great land their own manage to have various issues with new immigrants who arrive here daily. They view them as lower-class people who bring down property values, increase crime rates and "spoil" the current ethnic mix and ratios.

As a result, and no matter their education or skills, many immigrants don't have a fighting chance of succeeding and are forced to take low-end jobs to make ends meet. Of course, that's a problem faced around the world, including in places such as London where such people are similarly overlooked and/or looked down upon by the locals and tourists alike.

Such is the backdrop for director Stephen Frears' ("High Fidelity," "The Grifters") latest picture, "Dirty Pretty Things." Named for a pivotal hotel manager character stating that dirty things occur in posh hotels and it's the workers job to clean them up and make them pretty once again, the film sports a mini U.N. sort of cast.

That hotel manager is Spanish, while the doorman is Russian. The front desk clerk is a Nigerian doctor, and one of the chambermaids is Turkish. Somewhat akin to Ken Loach's approach of showing the plight of the lives of working class people, the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of the latter two characters.

Thankfully, it never gets too preachy, but then again, it doesn't really have time to. That's because novice screenwriter Steve Knight's script abruptly turns into something of a soul-searching mystery thriller following the discovery of a human heart in one of the guest room loos.

That leads to additional discoveries and revelations that ultimately tie back into the main immigrant issue, leaving the main character - the doctor-cum-taxi driver-cum desk clerk - with a perplexing quandary. Does he take advantage of the situation and help himself and other immigrants, or does he blow the whistle on a black market ring and thus ruin his and the others' chances as well as the lives of the needy he's never met?

Although it might sound a bit too deep and/or convoluted, Fears manages to keep thing orderly and easy to follow, even if the pivotal discovery is a bit contrived. After all, I don't think flushing a human heart would be my first choice in attempting to dispose of it.

Notwithstanding that or a somewhat predictable turn of events at the end, this is a generally smart and engaging morality play of sorts as mixed in with a thriller. Besides Frears' terrific direction (as usual) and a pitch-perfect rendering from the production team of a side of London not usually seen by the tourists, what sells the picture are the strong performances by the cast.

The most noteworthy among them is the one by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Three Blind Mice," "Amistad") as the overworked and under-appreciated hotel clerk et al. Thanks to a perfectly nuanced take on the role, I never had any doubt that he was this character, and he makes him a completely engaging sort. It's a revelatory performance that should put the relatively unknown actor into the spotlight.

For those who tired of her perky, wide-eyed and pixyish character in "Amelie," Audrey Tautou ("L'Auberge Espagnole," "He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not") is also something of a revelation. Playing about as far from that earlier role as possible, she delivers a strong if not particularly happy or uplifting performance.

Among the supporting roles, Benedict Wong ("Spy Game") is good as a morgue worker who befriends Okwe (and gets some of the film's better, if short, speeches). Meanwhile, Sergi Lopez ("Jet Lag," "With a Friend Like Harry") is perfectly cast as the slimy villain whose opportunistic efforts actually benefit others, thus bathing him in a shade of gray that makes him far more interesting than one would expect.

Well crafted, generally intelligent, engaging and intriguing from start to finish, this multi-layered film might not appeal to all viewers, especially those who favor formulaic Hollywood efforts. For others, however, its story about a unique form of "room service" might just be what the doctor ordered. "Dirty Pretty Things" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed June 16, 2003 / Posted August 1, 2003

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