Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

If only Trump’s dreams come true.

Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian refugee currently living in London, where, as a way to stay alive and prosperous, he works two jobs. One is his job as a cab driver, whereas the other, is a bellman at a hotel where he sees and witnesses all sorts of weird and shady things, but because he’s in the country illegally, he never makes a problem of it. Instead, he just goes about his life in London and act as if he didn’t have a more lovely life in his native land, where he was actually a doctor (a job, in ways, he is still doing, if only to look over men’s penises for gonorrhea). Senay (Audrey Tautou) is a Turkish Muslim who works as a maid at the same hotel that Okwe works at and, though she is in the country legally, she is not allowed to hold down a job, or have anyone living with her. Though Senay doesn’t listen to these orders sent on down to her from the immigration police, she may start to have to, considering that they’re now snooping around left and right. Together, though, Senay and Okwe try to live and maintain something of a respectable lifestyle in London, even if that is a lot easier said then done.

Get this at Motel 6 all the time.
Get this at Motel 6 all the time.

Dirty Pretty Things is an oxymoron of a title, mostly because it is, and of itself, a dirty movie, featuring some very pretty things. The “dirty” stuff in this movie is in fact the setting of where these characters live and navigate their lives, and the “pretty” stuff is actually the actors in these roles. No matter what though, the picture that director Stephen Frears paints of this world is in no way a beautiful, or caring one – instead, it’s the underbelly of London, a place we think we know all about from what movies and TV tell us, but in reality, we really don’t.

And because of this, Dirty Pretty Things can sometimes be almost too gritty for its own good.

The fact that the movie starts off with someone finding a human heart in a toilet, already makes you think that it’s gone too far, way before it even began, and some of that is true. For one, the heart itself serves as a bit of a manipulative McGuffin to not only give our main protagonist, Okwe, more time and energy spent in this dark and dirty underworld of London, but also search for his own soul. Writer Stephen Knight clearly knows what he’s trying to do with this aspect of the story and where he wants to go, which is why it’s kind of a shame to see everything start off so obvious and, dare I say it, silly.

But then, the movie, as well as Knight’s script, gets back in line and reminds us that, yes, this story is about immigration, but not the kind of preachy, overcooked story you’d expect. In fact, it’s a whole lot smaller and smarter than that. For example, the movie isn’t necessarily as much of one about immigration, as much as its about these two characters who, yes, happen to be immigrants, but are also trying their absolute hardest to succeed in life, even if every possible blockade stands in their way. Because of the bleak tone, Dirty Pretty Things never amounts to being an inspirational, or better yet, sappy tale about how these characters give it their all when faced with adversity, which helps the movie when it actually comes to discussing and approaching just how cruel the lives these characters live.

But like I said, Dirty Pretty Things is not as corny as I make it sound.

Most of what works here about the writing is that the two lead characters, Okwe and Senay, are so well-done, developed, and interesting, that the fact that there may be something of a romance between the two is the least bit compelling thing about them. The movie touches on it many of times, and each time, it’s about as effective as the last, but really, the insight we get into these two character’s lives, whether together or not, makes us see these characters for who they are and get something of a full-portrait of them. Okwe, despite clearly not having as lavish of a lifestyle as he did back at home in Nigeria, still believes that, one day, things will get better and he’ll live that dream of his, whereas Senay dreams of living in America, but sadly, is stuck in London, and doesn’t want to just sit around all day, wasting her time and being practically useless. Both of them definitely want to work and amount to something, which is why it’s easy to sympathize with them right from the start.

Amelie? What happened to your smile?
Amelie? What happened to your smile?

And it matters so much that, early on, we sympathize with these characters, because Knight’s script moves on and on, the more and more it becomes to get more cruel and mean. However, this isn’t in a so-bleak-it’s-actually-freakin’-depressing way, but more of in this-is-how-it-actually-is way. The movie doesn’t pull back any punches and reminds you that these characters have it bad, which is why when it seems like it couldn’t get any worse – it in fact does. But still, there’s that slight feeling, no matter how small it may actually be, of hope that keeps them, as well as us, the viewer, going. Just to see a character constantly get crapped on, day in and day out, isn’t compelling – it’s just dull and repetitive.

What Dirty Pretty Things does, is that it shows that these characters are capable of having a better life – they just have to search farther and wider for it. Okwe and Senay, played to perfection by both Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou, are both characters we want to see live a happy life – whether it’s in America, or in London, or together, or not, we want to see them happy and living the life they want to live. Though the movie takes all sorts of opportunities to show us why that can’t happen, the idea that they may be able to, at least at one point in their lives, is what keeps engaging and, surprisingly, heartfelt. These two characters do in fact deserve, well, happiness, and because of that, it’s hard not to root for them, and boo on those that try standing in their way.

Perhaps Okwe’s and Senay’s story is the same as any other immigrant trying to make something of themselves in another country, eh?

Consensus: With a detailed, but smart direction from Stephen Frears, a bleak, but ultimately uplifting screenplay from Stephen Knight, and a surprisingly honest and heartfelt tale about immigration, Dirty Pretty Things becomes a movie that’s so much more than just that, and more about how two humans can connect to wanting the same thing and trying to achieve that dream that they so desperately want, by any means necessary.

8 / 10

A Nigerian bellboy and a Turkish maid meet in a hotel lobby. I don't know where the joke goes from there, but it sounds like the punchline to something.
A Nigerian bellboy and a Turkish maid meet in a hotel lobby. I don’t know where the joke goes from there, but it sounds like the punchline to something.

Photos Courtesy if: Indiewire, Reeling Reviews


  1. Great job. I have a vague recollection of seeing this, but nothing stood out to me. Sounds like I might have to revisit.

  2. Saw this film when it first hit rental – It’s a cracker. Put me onto Ejiofor who I’ve been a fan of ever since. Great review and an important film today.

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