Dirty Pretty Things sounds like a movie you'd buy on the Internet, one in which the stars, though 21, look 13. But the title actually refers to the dirty things that go on at the Baltic Hotel and are then swept under the carpet, made pretty again. Really dirty things. Set in the parts of London that don't tend to make it onto postcards ' basements, back alleys, sweatshops ' this uneasily balanced comedy/thriller asks us to imagine what it would be like to drive a cab, scrub a floor, turn a trick and then be run out of the country because you don't have a passport. As an illegal immigrant, you have no rights, no privileges, and even if you worked two jobs it would be hard to save up enough money to acquire one. But what if a guy offered to trade you a fake passport for one of your kidneys? Wouldn't you at least think about it?
That's the deal being struck on the fifth floor of the Baltic, where Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant, works as a desk clerk. A doctor in his native Nigeria, Okwe has come to London seeking political asylum. Instead, while fixing a clogged stool one night, he pulls out a human heart that's still fresh enough for transplantation. The metaphor is almost too ripe: In the London underworld, love is being flushed down the toilet. But Okwe, a man of high principle, has trouble giving up on human decency. And so does the woman he rents a couch from, a Turkish immigrant named Senay, who's played by that French cutie-pie, Audrey Tautou. A Muslim, Senay works very hard to hold on to her virginity, but, without a passport, she keeps getting caught in compromising positions ' down on her knees, for instance.
That's not exactly the stuff of comedy, and Dirty Pretty Things isn't exactly a comedy, but director Stephen Frears and scriptwriter Steven Knight do go after a slightly comic tone, perhaps to take the edge off such edgy material. Frears is the man who, early in his career, brought us My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, realistic depictions of life on the bottom rungs of Thatcherite England. Here, he's closer to Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson, where New York's tired, its poor, its huddled masses, fresh off the boat from wherever, helped each other through the assimilation process. Call it Moscow on the Thames, for the Baltic Hotel has a Russian doorman who could give Yakov "I Love This Country" Smirnoff a run for his rubles. And there's Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold.
Okonedo brings some nuance to the role, however, and that's what keeps Dirty Pretty Things from turning into Hollywood on the Thames ' Frears' feel for those who may not be on the tax rolls but who are nevertheless a vital part of the service industry. I called the movie an uneasily balanced comedy/thriller, but it is balanced, just uneasily. And the thriller half, which sounds like a belated sequel to 1978's Coma, has its own pleasures, even if those pleasures cut into the movie's otherwise realistic tone. That people might be selling their body parts to get passports seems far-fetched ' an urban myth. And knowing that the scriptwriter is the guy who thought up "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" doesn't help very much. But as a Swiftian look at how far some of us have to go to get by in this world, Dirty Pretty Things hits where it hurts.