Dirty Pretty Things
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Stephen Frears burst on the scene in 1985 with My Beautiful Launderette: a dynamic interracial gay love story, complete with an over-the-top performance by an unknown named Daniel Day-Lewis. Frears followed up with Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which mined basically the same milieu, London's multi-ethnic neighborhoods. It was a moderately enjoyable movie, but a certain blah started setting in, caused - at least for this viewer - by Frears' nickel-and-dime '60s attitudes. As in, All whites are straight, all nonwhites are hip. It was clearly time to move on.

To his credit, Frears ventured into every genre he could lay his hands on, and for a while it looked like he could do no wrong: Prick Up Your Ears was a superb bio of British playwright Joe Orton (mostly due to Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina's fantastic performances), his adaptation of Liaisons Dangereuses outshone Valmont by a heavyweight like Milos Forman, and The Grifters was a chilling, effective noir that got Frears an Academy nomination for Best Director. Then came a dry decade: Frears kept venturing, but the Midas touch was gone. Who but a hardcore Sundance afficionado cares about Hi-Lo Country, a Woody Harrelson western?

So Frears went back. His new film, Dirty Pretty Things, takes place in a London that is light years away from Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square. This is the London of sweatshops and above-the-store tiny apartments, whose inhabitants have to tread an uneasy path between crude, unshaven Immigration agents and shady dealers out to exploit them. Frears' characters go to unimaginable lengths to obtain a set of legal papers. They are also heartbreakingly decent and supportive of one another. None of them is white, of course; after all these years, the White Man is still the villain. For a bit of insurance, Frears has an evil Indian (or Pakistani) sweatshop owner and a sweet Serbian nincompoop; but mostly he carries his youthful bias on his sleeve. So should we care about all these black-and-brown angels?

Well… I did. Once you set aside Frears' infantile politics, you can enjoy Dirty Pretty Things for what it is - a well-made melodrama thriller. As you follow the main characters, a Nigerian ex-doctor and now a limo driver / night maitre d', and his platonic Turkish girlfriend, through their tribulations, you begin falling for these people. Frears knows how to get performances out of his cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Nigerian with saving understatement (the script makes him angelic beyond belief), while Audrey Tautou of Amelie, Mlle. Charm herself, does the Turkish girl to a turn. But the film is almost stolen by the villain of the cast, Sergi Lopez (With a Friend Like Harry). Mr. Frears' world is black and white (literally), but he knows enough about storytelling to make Sin, as personified by Mr. Lopez' character, irresistible. His Sneaky is cynical, scary, funny (the pimp-like outfits alone, and the simple pleasure he takes out of "the hair of the dog" in the morning!), and thoroughly amoral. To round out the cast, there's a proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold, played by Sophie Okonedo with an irrepressible glint in her eye, and a Chinese wise-man-in-the-morgue, played by Benedict Wong.

Frears also knows how to inject a mediocre plot with breathless energy, and he knows how to keep the audience on the edges of their seats, skillfully welding unbearably graphic descriptions and get-out-your-hankies melodrama. In short, he knows how to entertain. And one more thing: nowadays, when it seems like no highbrow European director can go wrong with anti-Americanism (Von Trier's Dogville), Frears' down-to-earth characters are still old-fashioned enough to fantasize of America as the Land of the Last Resort. It was a touching detail seeing Ejiofor's character display prominently a postcard with a night view of Manhattan. Maybe Frears knows something Von Trier doesn't.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Miramax Films
Movie Web site: Dirty Pretty Things



Photo credits: © 2003 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.