Movie stars tend to fall into two groups-chameleons, who assume a different persona with each new role, and constants, who play themselves, or some version of themselves, over and over. (Think Meryl Streep versus Katharine Hepburn, Dustin Hoffman versus Marlon Brando.) The same holds for directors. British director Stephen Frears is a chameleon whose films range widely not only in subject and setting, but in tone. From the cool cynicism of Dangerous Liaisons to the rowdy Dublin humor of The Snapper, the warmth of High Fidelity to the turbulent rancor of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid: watch a number of Frears films and try to discover a recognizable signature. There’s something there, but you’re hard-pressed to say what.

Frears has been around a long time. After studying law at Cambridge in the early 1960s, he switched to film and landed at the BBC, building a sturdy résumé of TV films throughout the 1970s. In 1985, writer Hanif Kureishi came along with a script about a young Anglo-Pakistani and a Cockney punk who get together to run a London laundromat. My Beautiful Laundrette trolled the blighted margins of Thatcher’s England for tough-tender stories of outsiders-immigrants, skinheads and squatters, an interracial gay couple-while showing its British audience whole precincts of London where they would be, in effect, foreigners. The film launched Daniel Day-Lewis’s career and transformed Frears’s, turning him into a big-budget Hollywood director even as it staked out a small-budget subject to return to between blockbusters: London, the multicultural city.

In My Beautiful Laundrette Frears placed foreigners center stage and pushed the English to the side. In his new thriller, Dirty Pretty Things, he goes further, getting rid of them altogether. Set in the murky underworld of London’s illegal immigrants, Dirty Pretty Things takes up the travails of a Nigerian named Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), night clerk at a London hotel, and a Turkish asylum-seeker, Senay (Audrey Tautou). In a horrific middle-of-the-night scene, Okwe fishes a human heart out of a stopped-up toilet-the gory remains of an organ trafficking ring involving desperate illegals selling their kidneys for cash or passports. “Strangers come to a hotel in the night to do dirty things,” the corrupt night manager (Sergi López) tells Okwe. “And in the morning it is our job to make everything pretty again.”

Like Michael Apted, Ken Loach, and other British directors of his generation, Frears was influenced by Britain’s Free Cinema movement of the 1950s and early 1960s with its politically engaged, working-class films. Dirty Pretty Things reflects an explosion of illegal immigration across Europe, and in the United Kingdom especially, where trafficking in illegals has resulted in gruesome episodes like the death by suffocation three years ago of fifty-eight Chinese immigrants in a truck container at the port of Dover. Screenwriter Steven Knight scripted his torn-from-the-headlines drama around this reduction of people to cargo-to material, chopped up and sold for parts. With its brutal hotel-room surgeries and organ peddling in garages, the film mixes documentary exposé with a grisly poetry of exploitation.

Dirty Pretty Things surveys what one British reviewer called “a London without landmarks”-no Buckingham Palace or Saint Paul’s, but a world of stifling hotel kitchens and dreary urban lanes where illegals toil in sweatshops. The movie immerses us in a London of mosques and Afro-Turkish markets: this is the London, Frears has remarked, that the rest of Britain fears and would like to pretend doesn’t exist. The same fear has existed ever since the industrial revolution filled East London with cheap immigrant labor, turning it into a “nether world”-the title of the 1889 George Gissing novel that portrayed the East End’s impoverished immigrant neighborhoods as “a city of the damned.”

Though made and marketed as a thriller, beneath its neo-noir trappings, Frears’s lurid urban legend of a heart fished from a toilet is pure Victorian melodrama. The movie harks back to a time when East London played the dark shadow of the wealthy West, Hyde to its Jekyll, and newspapers brimmed with sensational accounts of the filth, prurience, and violence of the poor, expressing West End horror-and fascination-at the Hobbesian East. To the Victorians, notorious crimes reflected a depraved environment (the Ripper murders, for instance, sparked parliamentary inquiries into Whitechapel poverty), and prostitution presented the prospect of innocence defiled-the milkmaid or flower girl thrown upon the hard streets. Dirty Pretty Things invites us to shudder with loathing for the sweatshop boss, who extorts sex from Senay, and groan in sympathy with Okwe, horror-stricken at the plight of transplant victims, but powerless to call the police. Virtue is swamped by vice; all beauty succumbs to a remorseless brutalization. “For you and I there is no love,” Okwe says to Senay, “only survival.” The line could have been written one hundred twenty years ago.

Acting in such a starkly defined moral scheme presents special challenges and temptations, and fans of Audrey Tautou’s dreamy performance in Amélie may find her work here overwrought-not only is this her first English-language film, but she has to paint a second foreign accent (Turkish) on top, and it’s a struggle she tries to win through a kind of bellicose virginal earnestness. Fortunately, Zlakto Buric brings comic relief, in the hulking form of a bawdy hotel doorman. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, a young actor of astonishing range (he recently played the role of the neurotic son in a London revival of Noel Coward’s Vortex), is sublime as the quietly despairing Okwe. Frears’s films, several of them done with excellent cinematographer Chris Menges, tend to be shot close. He’s terrific with faces, and Dirty Pretty Things catches Ejiofor’s character in closeups that reveal the agonized and bitter moment when dismay sinks into despair.

In recent years, the cinematic view of Britain exported to America has been set by breezy comedies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Notting Hill, serving up batches of posh fun. The fantasy of Notting Hill is that you can have it all: that your small-scale, self-deprecating, Hugh Grant kind of English life might suddenly be touched by gold. Remember the bliss of that movie’s last scene, with Grant and Roberts on a park bench-she pregnant, he reading Henry James, kids frolicking around them? The bliss is domestic and artistic and romantic all at once, a sunny vision of the upscaling of British life, where the challenge, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is one of living up to the promise of your bright blue door.

The view of London on display in Dirty Pretty Things acts as a gritty corrective-not the fantasy of having it all, but the nightmare of losing it all, suffered by characters who struggle to attain even a modicum of safety and sanity. Frears’s movies generally are full of sanctuary, private places (the pub; the record store; the family dining room; the marital bed) where protagonists recoup from hard blows the world dishes out. Dirty Pretty Things strips all such sanctuary away. Exploited by employers and hounded by the law, their families lost to them in distant countries, Tautou’s and Ejiofor’s characters are barely able even to cook dinner together without immigration officers bursting in to harass them.

Frears has spoken in interviews about his long-term project of marrying European and American film; and indeed, Dirty Pretty Things would seem to join a 1960s cinema of engagement to a slick bit of American genre work. I confess to being uncertain whether what results is a cunning synthesis, weird hybrid, or stealthy political tract. What is certain is that the film opens up a disturbing look at life beneath the comforts of middle-class society and the protections of the welfare state. Frears is a child of the devastated Britain of World War II and afterward, and hardship haunts the London of his movie, transforming the prosperous present into a grim city of scarcity. end

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2003-08-15 issue: View Contents
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