Click here for an interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor about KINKY BOOTS.(9:49).
Stephen Frears’ work always has an element of savagery to it. No matter what the milieu, there is always the overwhelming sense of acute danger and violence permeating even the quietest of moments, making those moments not so much islands of peace as a jittery prelude to what is to come. And so it is with DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, a stark portrayal of class warfare played out as an elegant game of chess, one of the films’ many metaphors, where the pawns are people and their pain real.
The violence is the wearing away of the souls of immigrants without proper papers, a class without rights, without even identity, leaving them open to exploitations of all flavors. That exploitation is something that they must swallow as their dignity fades leaving only constant fear and the pale reflection of the dream that brought them to London in the first place.
In the case of Okwe, there is a mystery about what his dream was, like the mystery of where he came from, why he knows so much about medicine, and why he chews coca leaves to stay awake 24/7. This wakefulness lets him divide his time between driving a taxi and manning the graveyard shift at the front desk of a mid-range hotel. Life is drifting along for Okwe just fine until he finds the toilet in one of the rooms stopped up not by the usual, but by a human heart. He tries to report it to the police, but fear of being deported stops him. Besides, as his boss, Senor Juan, tells him, a hotel is full of strangers who do surprising things and we are the ones who must clean up after them. No questions. No judgments.
Senor Juan, played to the hilt by Sergi Lopez, is the Mephistopheles of the piece. Knowing more than he cares to give away, he?s a smiling, glib purveyor of whatever is required and always at a price that is just a little higher than the buyer wants to spend. And yet, as the story unfolds, it is he who is the one who can snap his fingers and provide fake passports and the security they represent. And in the unsettling circumstances the film presents, it is Okwe’s morality that prevents him from giving in and, thus, he stands in the way of rescuing those most desperately in need, including the asylum-seeking Turkish hotel maid, Senay (the always waifish Audrey Tautou) whom he has put under his benign, impotent protection. It is that ambiguity that gives DIRTY PRETTY THINGS its bite and its sting. Here etched in jagged relief is life without the luxury of morality in the conventional sense, where desperation and the escape from it are the only rules. This violence is as silent as the dialogue that is spoken in measured whispers, leaving scars on the psyche worse than any inflicted on the body itself.
For contrast, physical violence is played almost for laughs. The hotel whore takes a punch and then gives as good as she gets and better. There is no shock on her part, not even much in the way of resentment, this sort of thing is a professional hazard, like traffic tickets for Okwe?s taxi driving gig and she takes it even less personally.
Frears does most of his shots in close up. This takes advantage of the rich faces in the cast, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose expression is one of sad intellect with eyes that bespeak a dynamic energy kept in careful check. The close ups also work in larger sense to do what the film as a whole is designed to accomplish, give a face to the faceless service class. If there’s a flaw in the script by Steve Knight, it’s putting that idea into painfully prosaic and unnecessary dialogue. At least the lapse is brief and uncharacteristic of the script’s otherwise understated but acute sensibility.
DIRTY PRETTY THINGS requires nerves of steel and a fair bit of intestinal fortitude. The world it creates, though exquisitely acted and directed, is one where the happy of happy endings is as relative and ambiguous as the morality of its players. There are also a few shots, not so much gratuitous as emblematic, of some severe wounds that ooze lividly. Brace yourself for one of the best films that you will see this year.