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The pulse of Things

Stephen Frears locates a gripping story at the heart of London's working-class immigrant population

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Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian illegally living in London, works two jobs. When we first see him, he's hustling customers for his mini-cab. Come sundown, he dons a spiffy red uniform and works the desk at a classy hotel. Sent one night to check on a clogged toilet in a guest room, he kneels, wraps his hand in a plastic bag, plunges it into the overflowing bowl, then gasps at what he extracts--a human heart.

This is the startling opening of Dirty Pretty Things, the best British film I've run across in ages. In some senses, Stephen Frears' movie is not at all unusual. Produced by BBC Films, it's one of countless conventionally naturalistic, TV-scaled films that deal with Britain's ever-evolving identity as a multi-cultural nation.

In many such films, alas, the moviemakers take their multi-culti theme and identity-politics credentials as a sufficient raison d'etre, if not badge of honor, and then serve up bits of prosaic sociological sentimentality--the cinematic equivalent of those self-congratulatory Benetton ads.

What distinguishes Dirty Pretty Things is that it doesn't overlook two elements that elude many of these films: exceptional film craft and imaginative, brilliantly articulated storytelling.

Frears, of course, has a great pedigree in this area. In the '80s he made two low-budget comedy-dramas, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which effectively launched the latter-day tradition of films dealing with the difficulties facing immigrants in contemporary Britain. These movies' key virtue was that, in probing their politically charged subjects, they never forgot to be exuberantly entertaining.

Dirty Pretty Things offers the same balance of incisive social observation and expert narrative enthrallment. Generically, it has elements of a thriller, a mystery, a film noir. However, in the usual conventions of those genres, all the twists and surprises simply propel us from one end of the story to the other. In Frears' film, however, the story's subtle excitements and revelations draw us ever deeper into the central characters and their world, a shadowy milieu fraught with daunting cultural and political dilemmas.

These characters are mostly immigrants from the world's poorer sections. They are the cabbies, the chambermaids, the sweat shop workers. (The film's only "white" English characters, two heavy-handed immigration officers, look like they might be recent arrivals from Eastern Europe.) Many of these people live a kind of desperate, day-to-day existence because they're in Britain illegally, often for political reasons, and therein lies a discomfiting paradox: While many Western countries depend on such below-minimum-wage workers, they will not grant them the sanction to live normal, everyday lives.

The acid ironies of Okwe's situation are worthy of a Tolstoy or Graham Greene. The African knows exactly what the heart he pulls from the toilet bowl is because in Nigeria he was a doctor. Why he has left Africa, and a life that once included a loving wife and daughter, are mysteries the film doesn't resolve until its final section. At first, we simply watch as Okwe tells his boss, a Spaniard named Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), about the heart, and is sardonically told in return told that the hotel's full of dirty things that they, the unseen night staff, must replace with pretty things.

This note of the provisional and secretive also characterizes Okwe's private life. Although his feverish devotion to work means that he only sleeps a few hours at night, he gets that occasional shut-eye in the flat of Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish illegal immigrant who also works at the hotel. Senay, it develops, has a serious crush on Okwe, and while he is grateful for her friendship, he is still fixated on the life he left in Africa.

Around these central characters are others who are equally memorable: Okwe's best friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), a droll and literate chess player who works in a mortuary; Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a puckish black prostitute; and Ivan (Zlatko Buric), the hotel's genially corrupt doorman.

The film's taut pacing and elegant, atmospheric mounting, along with Steve Knight's fine script and Chris Menges' terrific cinematography, remind us of the quality and assurance that Frears brings to projects large and small. The filmmakers' only false step was casting French star Audrey Tautou (Amelie) as Senay. Tautou gives it a game try, and no doubt there were economic reasons for her inclusion, but one can't help also sensing a kind of cultural bias behind the fact that the one role cast so inauthentically was that of a Muslim woman.

At the other extreme, happily, is the work of Chiwetel Ejiofor. By any reckoning, Okwe--an assumed name, incidentally--qualifies as one of the most fascinating and resonant portraits of a contemporary African ever put on screen. Ojiofor's dignified, haunted, endlessly subtle performance makes the man palpably believable. It alone is reason enough to see Dirty Pretty Things, a movie as thought-provoking as it engrossing.

A few years ago, I was invited to the top of the world to check out the Icelandic film scene. The first morning in Reykjavik, barely awake, I was driven out to the country and handed over to a young man who looked like a refugee from The Long Riders--long leather coat, boots, drooping moustache, shoulder-length hair--who promptly threw me on a horse and led me on a mad gallop through overflowing rivers and over a landscape like something out of The Lord of the Rings.

He didn't ask in advance if I could ride, and indeed I hadn't since I was a kid. When we stopped at an abandoned farmhouse, I was ready for the bottle of cognac he passed me.

This improbable Icelandic cowboy, Balthasar Kormakur by name, was, at the time, one of the country's top young movie stars, as well as the proprietor of the capital's hippest bar. Since then, he has turned to directing and made two movies (the first was Reykjavik 101) that have added to Iceland's rep as one of the world's most interestingly offbeat national cinemas.

Icelandic films sometimes strike me as oddly claustrophobic, in stark contrast to the panoramic extravagance of the country's landscapes. On the other hand, The Sea, Kormakur's latest, reminds us that the literary--as opposed to natural--backdrop to any Icelandic drama are the sagas, stories of the kinds of violent family quarrels you get when you shut up a bunch of bloody-minded Vikings and Celts on their own little island for several centuries running.

The Sea serves up the modern-day equivalent of those ancient clannish meltdowns. The premise: A provincial patriarch, who's been contemplating selling off the family fishery he inherited from his late first wife, invites his three kids home to discuss his intentions. The brood is a mixed lot: one son's a dreamy artiste who lives in Paris with his girlfriend, the other's a henpecked fishery manager, while the daughter's the shrewish wife of a vapid yuppie.

Put all these folks, along with their various agendas, kids and significant others, together in one house for a long night with plenty of alcohol and you have the recipe for both a nerve-rattling psychodrama and a scabrous absurdist comedy--a dizzying combo that's exactly what Kormakur gives us.

With its overheated emotions, air of mordant irreverence and absence of any truly sympathetic character, The Sea feels like a ride on a roller coaster that constantly threatens to spill over the tracks. Yet if it is uneven it's also consistently engaging, alternately hilarious and harrowing.

Kormakur's approach at various times recalls Robert Altman, Mike Leigh and Emir Kusturica. While that may not add up to an entirely cohesive directorial vision at this point, the energy, passion and conviction of his work certainly mark him as a director to watch. If you've never seen an Icelandic film, The Sea is a great place to jump in.

Speaking of violent family quarrels worthy of the Icelandic sagas, the Greek myths, or indeed even the World Wrestling Federation, this week brings a true battle of the titans. That's right, kids: Freddy vs. Jason.

Let us hear no words of scornful condescension for either horror icon or the long-running slasher series in which they appeared. Sure, when they first appeared back in the '80s, the horror genre had long since earned its art-film stripes by turning out high-toned shockers running from Psycho to The Exorcist to Alien. But Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street films weren't simply bargain-basement knockoffs for smirking teens. They were also, like Roger Corman's cheesy horror films of yore, vital, inventive and (as it turned out) wildly successful indie-film juggernauts that gave the majors a run for their money.

Plus, each series had moments of real inspiration. The first Friday the 13th used (intentionally or not) the visual equivalent of an unreliable narrator. Okay, it wasn't exactly Ford Madox Ford, but to me it was far more interesting than anything in Halloween. And A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors (1987, directed by Chuck Russell) stands as one of its era's most accomplished and most startlingly surreal horror films, a merging of dream and desire that Cocteau might have admired.

It was of course inevitable that Nightmare's Freddy Kreuger and Friday's Jason Vorhees would meet in battle: They go together, after all, like fire and water, like a comfy dull suburb and a dependably safe summer camp. Yet fans of both series had good reason to worry if the series' traditions would be trashed when the two were compacted.

The bad news: Freddy vs. Jason is not the horror masterpiece that either series in its best moments suggests. In part, that's because the joining of the two horror-heroes means an inescapable dual focus which the filmmakers can only struggle to overcome.

The good news: Directed by Ronny Yu, maker of The Bride with White Hair and other reputable Hong Kong genre films, F vs. J is still a lot of fun because its attitude is exactly where it should be: Eschewing the pomo campiness of Scream, the film takes its premise and progenitors seriously without taking itself too seriously.

I daresay it won't convert naysayers or rewrite the canon of horror movies. But for fans seeking slasher thrills and laughs of the old '80s variety, it proves that a warmly nostalgic trip down memory lane need not lack for severed arteries and disemboweled teenagers. EndBlock

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