What would you do to ensure the safety of your loved ones? What price would you pay for freedom? Is freedom worth sacrificing your ideals, your religious beliefs, or even your faith itself? These are the questions that Dirty Pretty Things (2001) asks. Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen) and written by Steven Knight (one of the screenwriters for Amazing Grace interestingly enough), the film is a dark, yet at times comedic, look at immigrants struggling to live and work in London.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant who hardly ever sleeps. After all, fighting to stay above the poverty line offers no rest for the weary. In the course of the film, we learn that he was a doctor in Nigeria who was wrongfully implicated in the death of his wife and was thus forced to flee his country, leaving a daughter and sister behind. This brilliant doctor has now been reduced to driving a cab during the day and working as a hotel porter at night. He also serves as a kind of black market doctor, diagnosing the sexually transmitted diseases of his cab driver colleagues and providing them with medication he obtains from a friend who works at a local hospital.
Senay (Audrey Toutou) is an illegal Turkish immigrant who holds close her virginity and her hopes of moving on to New York City. She works at the same hotel as Okwe, but their paths only cross in the morning when she arrives to clean the dirty, used rooms. Okwe and Senjay work out an agreement through which he can sleep (or try to) on her couch in the morning before he goes off to his other job. This agreement is put in jeapordy when immigration officials rightly suspect Senay of both working and accepting rent, both illegal under her immigrant status. But Senay has to work in order to live, so she settles for a job at a sweat shop. However, when the manager learns of her illegal status, he forces her to perform sexual favors in exchange for his secrecy.
This would all make for a sufficiently dramatic and complex film, but Frears adds another dimension. One night, while checking one of the rooms in the hotel, Okwe finds a human heart clogging the toilet. As he presses his “investigation” further, he learns that the hotel manager, Senior Juan/Sneaky (Sergi Lopez) has been running a black market on which he sells people’s organs in exchange for passports or citizenship papers. When Senior Juan learns of Okwe’s medical background, he tempts him with passports for both he and Senay in exchange for his professional assistance in extracting the organs. Senior Juan sees Okwe as a cure for the run of infections and deaths that plague a potentially, and in reality, lucrative business.
Both Okwe and Senay are forced to reassess personal values and religious beliefs against their desires for a better life. Frears’ focus on these two individuals serves as a microcosm for what “third world” immigrants to “first world” countries often have to do in order to survive. When Senior Juan first proposes his plan to Okwe, he quips, “I just wanted to put a wasp in your head.” With Dirty Pretty Things, Frears succeeds in transplanting the whole nest.