London Kills Me


Among the dozens of cabbies canvassing passengers at an airport exit, one pickup line stands out above the rest. “I am here to rescue those who have been let down by the system,” says Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to a pair of confused arrivals in London, and true to the overdetermined flight path of Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, his word is bond. Driver by day, desk clerk at a semi-seedy hotel by night, Okwe has immigrated illegally from Lagos, where he worked as a physician. Here he still does: When VD breaks out among his associates at the taxi dispatch, he conducts examinations and dispenses antibiotics—obtained from his pal and fellow refugee Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), an orderly at a hospital crematorium. And Okwe’s the best possible man for the job when, deployed to fix a leaking toilet at the hotel, he plucks out a human heart.

When this rotten fruit of the underground organ trade is rerouted to the oily manager’s desk, Señor Juan (Sergi López) regards it as casually as so much unsavory takeout. “The hotel business is about strangers,” he tells Okwe in lieu of explanation. And so is Dirty Pretty Things, which tunnels beneath a bustling city’s surface to find the personae non gratae who keep its motor clean. The director of My Beautiful Laundrette presents a scrubbed, anonymous London, fluorescent-filtered and polished to the high chrome gleam of a car commercial; on the soundtrack, screeching feedback and analog gurgles impatiently nudge the ear to what lies below the antiseptic veneer. So where does all the blood and grime go? The film flatly defines the existential station of the refugee—legal or otherwise—when Okwe and Guo Yi’s conversation is interrupted by a downpour of trash bags: The orderly’s ad hoc break room doubles as a dumpster.

In Britain, the Daily Mail, an influential right-wing tabloid, has for years advocated a crusade for hunting down and smoking out asylum seekers—a homogenous gaggle of lazy, criminal-minded saps on public resources, apparently. Like Michael Winterbottom’s forthcoming In This World, a quasi-documentary account of two Afghan immigrants’ long march to London, Dirty Pretty Things provides a corrective to screamer propaganda. To its credit, it even renders kidney sales as a viable career option for the desperate nonentity. Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish asylum applicant who lends Okwe her couch, is sorely tempted by Juan’s organs-for-passports program; abused by her employers, hounded by immigration officers—whom Frears casts as a pair of swarthy, raccoon-eyed gangsters manqués—and nursing a crush on emotionally unavailable Okwe, she hopes to join a cousin in New York City. (Miramax’s poster purrs the come-on “Some things are too dangerous to keep secret” as Tautou casts a smoldering gaze over her bare shoulder. In the actual film, she portrays a devout Muslim virgin.)

Steven Knight’s script evolves unabashedly into a romantic thriller, but the Hollywood-formula framework is built on a decidedly un-Hollywood foundation in terms of subject matter, worldview, and plausible casting (incidentally, its sole star made her name in another Miramax joint that washed Paris’s face of graffiti and other color). Slick and sober, fiercely contemporary, and rigged by a fail-safe three-act structure, Dirty Pretty Things nimbly straddles the line between realism and popcorn pop, but it knows which side its bread is buttered on.

The queen of the scepter’d isle, it’s easy to forget, can fling her handbag into the machinery of constitutional monarchy whenever it pleases her, as Britons rediscovered when she halted the theft trial of Princess Diana’s butler with little more than a wave of her hand. The premise of Johnny English is therefore quite reasonable by the standards of the spy thrillers it parodies: A nefarious Anglophobe meddler—a Frenchman, natch—plots to usurp Elizabeth’s throne and deploy her mostly dormant powers in transforming Albion into the globe’s largest penal colony. Idiotic secret agent English (Bean man Rowan Atkinson) must outfox Gallic pretender Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, tonguing an accent as forcefully as he did in Rounders), but the comic payoff can be pre-measured by the writing credits: two vets of Brosnan-era Bond and a co-scribe of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Smug with timely zingers like “The only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion,” the movie’s recommended strictly for Bush advisers.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 15, 2003

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