Dirty Pretty Things


dirty pretty thingsYou are surrounded by bodies. They pass you on the street on your way to the corner store. You catch a glimpse of one as it wipes out an ashtray or sprays down a window. These are the people in your neighborhood; the people that you look away from each day.

Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is one of those bodies. He works two menial jobs in London, sleeps on couches and park benches, and struggles to forget a past that seems like it must’ve been someone else’s life. He is the kind of person who usually disappears out of the corner of your eye, falling off the edge of the screen: A discarded penny, a dirty pretty thing.

Director Stephen Frears’ new film Dirty Pretty Things is about life on the peripherals. It’s about the secret lives of nobodies, the beauty, terror and compassion that exists at the end of the road. It’s about a world that’s cannibalistic, mercenary, full of unseen dangers – the world most of us ignore.

Okwe works days as a taxi driver and nights as a hotel desk receptionist. He discovers a human organ in a plugged toilet at the hotel one night, but he cannot go to the police because he is an illegal alien. He is led into a conspiracy as he tries to understand the meaning of the organ and tries to make sense of a world where such vital parts can be tossed away.

His Nigerian body is marked as criminal, its otherness serving as a sign to the police that he does not belong to this world, but he’s not alone in the crowd. Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish woman who has sought asylum in England and allows Okwe to sleep on her couch, is also very much a stranger to the city. She is permitted to live there but not to work and when immigration officials suspect her of having a job, she’s hunted like an animal.

People push their bodies in the film until they give out, break apart, crumble to the ground empty. Okwe must take herbs to stay awake while others sell their bodies as sex objects or work in sweatshops as imperfect but inexpensive machines. The empty quality of their work mirrors their social position: They are ghosts, transparent, disposable.

They are castaways who perform the lowest duties possible. Unable to work legally and living one day to the next, they are singled out because they are different. But this difference is only skin deep. Their bodies have value after all. You just need to dig deeply into them and you will discover, as hotel manager Sneaky (Sergi Lopez) has, that we’re all the same inside.

Sneaky sells human organs. He takes the ‘dirty’ parts embedded in illegal immigrants and sells them to clean national-born citizens. In exchange for donating their bodies, these immigrants are given clean passports. For if thy wetback offends you, I say, cut it up, for it is better to be free with one eye, than to remain a slave with thy filthy body intact.

This gruesome bargain is contrasted in the film by a love affair that develops between Okwe and Senay. The body is a fascinating object, capable of infinite dissection, but only a person can love. The film’s tenderness is so subtle and real that it’s impossible to resist its draw.

You can pull the heart from the body, but you cannot prevent it from falling in love.


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