is Associate Professor of English, African American Studies, Film
& Media Studies, and Cultural Studies at George Mason University.
She is also the film-tv-dvd editor for the weekly cultural studies
She edited Spike Lee: Interviews, (University of Mississippi
Press 2002). Her review of Bowling
for Columbine was published in Arts &
Opinion, Vol 1, No 1, 2002.
bloomin' feet! I'm lucky I don't work standing up." Laughing as she
makes her way through the hotel foyer, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo)
waves goodnight to Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the desk clerk. Their
brief exchange takes mere seconds, but their eyes -- weary, knowing
-- convey a deeply felt, shared experience. Immigrants struggling
to live in London, they're night people, toiling when most everyone
else, save for Juliette's clients, is sleeping.
first level, then, Dirty Pretty Things is a film about
beaten-down, exhausted, tenaciously hopeful workers, lonely and
dogged characters who labor at jobs that more privileged citizens
wouldn't think of doing. Okwe once had another life: he was a
doctor in Nigeria, forced into exile ("It is an African story,"
he says by way of explanation); now he watches the hotel desk
at night, drives a cab during the day, and when pressed by fellow
immigrants, provides minor medical care (say, treating his taxi
dispatcher for the clap).
spends his few off hours playing chess with his morgue-attendant
friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), or napping fitfully on a couch
in a flat rented by Senay (Audrey Tautou), a maid at the hotel.
She has her own backstory, having fled an arranged Muslim marriage
back in Turkey. Protective of her privacy (and her virginity)
and appreciative of Okwe's gentle chivalry, she's in England on
a temporary visa, which means she works illegally and lives in
fear that she'll be discovered.
so, the film reveals its other levels, as it considers not only
class disparities and the difficulties of poverty, but also the
ways that self-interest or survival shape actions. While director
Stephen Frears has explored the plights of immigrants previously
-- in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and
Rosie Get Laid (1987) -- Steve Knight's script takes a particularly
edgy, even surrealish tack, aided considerably by Chris Menges's
skritchy, smart cinematography, darting in and out of corners,
revealing bits of street life and indicating emotional nuance.
the urban immigrants in Dirty Pretty Things live hand-to-mouth,
each day a test of patience, resilience, and, to some degree,
moral fiber. Perhaps the most extravagant embodiment of this "test"
is the hotel's day manager, Señor Juan, also known as Sneaky
(Sergi López). Crude and unscrupulous, he's organized a
black market in human organs (mostly kidneys), wherein he arranges
visas, passports, and payments for people desperate to begin new
lives elsewhere. He also sets up the surgeries, late at night
in the hotel, often botched; when Sneaky accidentally learns that
Okwe is a capable doctor, he tries to enlist his services, applying
whatever underhanded pressures he can muster.
-- who is distressingly smart, if cynical -- sees his own needs
as primary as well as representative. When Okwe resists the illegal
activities, he explains the necessary cunning of their charge
as hotel workers: "The hotel business," he says, "is
a business of strangers. Strangers always surprise you. They come
to the hotel at night to do dirty things; it's our job in the
morning to make it all look pretty again." Okwe surely understands
this structure, this set of classed-raced-gendered distinctions
between haves and have-nots, describing himself and his co-workers
as "the people you never see," those laborers who drive,
wait on, and clean up after the folks with money.
Illuminating the travails of the underclass isn't news, but in
Dirty Pretty Things, the focus is specific and increasingly
absorbing. In part, this is a function of the uniformly excellent
performances, but it also has to do with the details that define
the characters, in particular, Okwe's quiet friendship with Guo
Yi, his gentle efforts to protect Senay, and his complicated negotiations
with Sneaky. While Okwe embodies a recognizable integrity, he's
also forced to do work that he loathes.
At the same time, Senay reflects a familiar, if resilient, victimization,
providing the film with a simplified emotional trajectory, even
amid all its complexities of moral and political challenges. When
a couple of immigration officers get wind of Senay at the hotel,
she seeks employment elsewhere, a sweatshop where she's forced
to service the skeezy proprietor sexually, when he threatens to
turn her in ("I just want you to help me to relax,"
he mutters). Increasingly desperate, she dreams of the good life
she's heard about in New York City and begins to fall in love
with Okwe. It's easy to see how she might do either, but what's
most compelling is the disorder and confusion of her relationship
with Okwe, as he proves too intricate and compromised a character
to fit into a conventional resolution.
The film's title, then, refers to many "things," most
simultaneously dirty and pretty. Not the least of these are the
steps of daily existence, the endless cycles of scraping along
to make rent or look after relatives. Entwined in these cycles
are the bodies that are always at stake. Selling and buying, using
and abusing bodies -- in parts, in sex acts, in wretched and depressing
labor – is the basis of capitalism. Most effectively, of
course, bodies here are full of secrets and significance. As Juliette
and Senay are paid for them, as Guo Yi and Okwe discuss their
meanings, as Sneaky sells them (or pieces of them), bodies are
deemed property, objects of trade, and perhaps, means to freedom.