Invisible People In an Alien World: Our Own

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2003

So many of us never see them. They glide by, living and dying, working, aspiring and perspiring, utterly invisible. Ho-hum. Is my car ready? Take me to 15th Street NW. Could you hurry up and clean the room?

That condition, however, will be more difficult to sustain after the experience of Stephen Frears's brilliant "Dirty Pretty Things," set in a modern city's fringe culture of immigrants, legal and illegal, trying to barter their way through the day in a world that refuses to acknowledge their existence, much less their humanity. It's tight, mordant, bitter, funny, thrilling, and it offers as its hero an extraordinary fellow: He's an authentic moral being who, though the universe has gone all twisty-crazy into greed, mendacity and manipulation, nevertheless clings to his own code.

When you arrive at Heathrow, you'll probably slide by right past Okwe. He's African, he has the empathetic eyes and cheerful demeanor of an optimist, yet you sense the off-putting secret edge of desperation. He's a driver, looking for rides. You might notice him if you can't find a cab or your ride fails to show, and he'll schlep you into London, chattering hopefully, easy to tune out, and you pay him and that's that. He lingers in your memory but a nanosecond or two.

Or possibly you'll meet him on job number two, night clerk at the Hotel Baltic. He's the guy in the red tunic behind the desk; he answers the phone for room service or programs the computer for wakeup calls in the small hours when nearly everyone else is asleep. He even doubles as night janitor.

If you saw him there, you might wonder: Day job, night job. Hmmm. When does the guy sleep? And the answer pretty much is: never.

That's how tenuous Okwe's grip on survival is; he floats in the service economy, overworked, always hustling, at the same time hoping never to attract attention or to get into trouble, sleeping on a rented couch, squirreling away money, trying to survive with what little dignity the largely indifferent universe will permit.

And there's one other thing about him: He's a doctor.

Okwe is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a brilliant British actor of Nigerian extraction who never shows off. I hate to think of an actor with an ego playing the hard-working, loyal, brave and moral Okwe; he'd make it an ordeal of virtue. Ejiofor's Okwe is too busy hustling to pose against the sunset or sigh melodramatically with self-pity. He's too wise, too discreet, too patient, too smart. He's got too much to lose. So why does he risk it all?

Well, because he discovers something that was once a staple sheriff's discovery in 10,000 poverty-row westerns: something wrong. And a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, same as it ever was. What Okwe discovers in one of the Baltic's rooms one night is a broken heart. That is, the thing itself, grisly and bloody, stuffed into the toilet.

That's the beginning of this taut little film, which in some highly original sense is basically a thriller, with Dr. Okwe as the reluctant detective, penetrating a conspiracy that metaphorically represents the West's use of immigrants of color -- it sees them primarily as bags full of organs for the buying.

Slowly, even while dodging creepy immigration cops or helping his roommate, the illegal Turkish immigrant Senay (Audrey Tautou), or examining his fellow drivers for signs of venereal disease, Dr. Okwe begins to sift the evidence, collect clues, interview and cross-index witnesses and survivors. The detective device -- the brilliant central conceit in Steven Knight's script -- essentially frees Dr. Okwe to crisscross the fringes, to visit apartments and sweatshops and late-night fast-food joints, so that eventually, seemingly without effort, a whole human culture is examined. What we see is heartbreaking: people so on the verge of deportation that exploitation is their job description, their only career choice, not their ill fortune. Some would rather die than be sent back, and even with kidneys removed with a butcher's crudity, they'd prefer to bleed out than go to the hospital.

At least three times, as he draws nearer and nearer to the truth, Dr. Okwe is offered ways out, ways off the hook, profits and protections. But he turns them down, as he turns down sexual entreaties and all other temptations. His morality is the quiet center of his life, and without it, that life is not worth living. In that sense, his heroism is of the greatest magnitude, being utterly shorn of vanity or selfhood, and given over only to a sense of rightness. He's that rarest of all movie creatures, the just man.

Frears is at home in this world: He made his name in the mid-'80s with a batch of brilliant films set in the lower-caste London neighborhoods of color and tumult: "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," "My Beautiful Laundrette." The unconventional "Prick Up Your Ears" watched the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and his lover twist toward murder. "The Hit" was a philosophical gangster movie, both thoughtful and violent. Frears segued easily enough to Hollywood, where his work was less consistent but still reached extraordinary heights, with "Dangerous Liaisons" probably his American masterpiece.

He then -- don't they all, sometime, some way -- came a cropper with some bombs, particularly "Mary Reilly." Since, he's been up, he's been down, he's been right, he's been wrong, he's even been to Ireland. In this one, he's working top-form in one of the year's best films.

Dirty Pretty Things (97 minutes, at Loews Georgetown and Bethesda Row Cinema) is rated R for sexual content, disturbing images and violence.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company