The Unseen People - a review of Dirty Pretty Things

root - Posted on 26 January 2004

a PNN ReViewsForTheReVoluTion

by tiny

"We are the people you don’t see.. the ones who clean your rooms, drive your cabs and suck your (cocks)" the actors steady gaze crawls up each syllable and in that one moment 10 years of low paid/no paid jobs and demeaning hustles were wiped from my working poor brow.

This line was brilliantly proclaimed by protagonist, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a Nigerian Doctor forced to flee his country to live as a low-wage worker in England in Stephen Frears new movie DirtyPrettyThings. His experience and that of the other main characters in his world is one of desperate poverty specific to the experience of an undocumented immigrant of color attempting to eke out some form of financial success in a Euro-centric pseudo-capitalist reality.

We watch with trepidation as he moves solemnly, sleeplessly, (due to a survival based addiction on a native root which he chews on throughout the film), through a multitude of low paying jobs (cab driver, hotel desk clerk), gaining a reputation for honesty, advocacy and nobility. At the hotel job he encounters a Turkish Muslim maid named Sinay (Audrey Tatou, in an excellent portrayal, notwithstanding a somewhat stilted accent) who seems to scurry through her struggles as if moving fast will make all her broken dreams and unrequited realities go away. From her first entrance on-screen you worry with Okwe that something very terrible is about to happen to her and he might be the only reason that it doesn’t. His quiet heroism builds with each scene

At the hotel, filled with other poor immigrants caught in a hamster’s wheel of not-fortune he meets his Spanish boss, nicknamed Sneaky (Sergei Lopez playing the ultimate in Latin sleaze). As Sneaky enters the tableau, you watch him nervously, knowing that his hustle is somehow much more dangerous than the usual on-screen pimp/bad-guy, another testament to Frears directing and a very delicate script by newcomer Steven Knight, (with the odd resume credit of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?)

Sneaky introduces us to a 21st century underground economy, in which the product is body parts and the trade is citizenship/documents gladly traded for by terrified immigrants, and local poor folks so desperate to attain passports and/or cash that they engage in a new level of psychic denial "its just like having a tooth extracted" a man proclaims on his death bed after having a kidney ripped brutally from his body with no medication and obviously no skill.

It is with the revelation that this is happening that Okwe begins his conflict. The stakes get higher, Sneaky, offers a sweet deal; he can be his surgeon in exchange for a passport and a large portion of the profit.

My own proximity to this kind of desperate poverty made me take on this moral dilemma with Okwe. He was miserable, would he be better off taking the cash and in so doing be able to save poor Sinay and as well, himself? You watch his resolute goodness and you know he won’t. And then the plot point, the final conflict, which places even his goodness in jeopardy leading to the film’s unclean yet perfect ending where all things in life are not absolutes, neither pretty nor dirty, where the privilege of nobility is not one of the poor man but must often be sacrificed for one’s survival.


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