Friday, August 1, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In the shadows of immigrant London lie 'Dirty Pretty Things'

Seattle Times movie critic

When a movie contains a character named Sneaky, and when he's played by the sly-eyed Sergi Lopez ("With a Friend Like Harry") with a jaunty walk and a dark purpose, you know that this movie has a few surprises up its sleeve.

British director Stephen Frears has made a string of fine films on both sides of the Atlantic ("High Fidelity," "Liam," "The Grifters," "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Dangerous Liaisons" — and let's just agree to forget about "Mary Reilly"), and here he's touched down on a London few know: the fearful network of illegal immigrants, quietly performing menial jobs and living day-to-day in shadows hidden from the authorities.

Movie review

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"Dirty Pretty Things," with Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong. Directed by Stephen Frears, from a screenplay by Steven Knight. 107 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, disturbing images and language. Seven Gables, Uptown.
"We are the people you do not see — the ones who clean your rooms and drive your cabs," says one character in "Dirty Pretty Things," and it's a stark reminder of the marginalized conditions in which these immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe find themselves. Nigerian-born Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a doctor in his home country, splits his sleep-deprived days and nights between driving a cab and working as a hotel clerk. Senay (button-eyed Audrey Tautou, of "Amélie" fame), from Turkey, is a maid in the same hotel. In the not-for-public-consumption hallways and offices, uncarpeted and unlovely, cheap clocks tick away the hours.

It's a ripe setting for a desperate scheme, and sure enough, there's one afoot — why else would a human heart be found in a hotel toilet? (Just when you think you've seen it all at the movies ... ) This vivid image kicks off an intricate plot about which I'll reveal as little as possible, mixing its genres as easily as its international cast blends accents. "Dirty Pretty Things" is part noirish thriller, part atmospheric drama and part black comedy; it's not for the faint of heart (a few scenes involving surgery might cause dizziness or worse), but should reward those in search of an August movie that substitutes character for car crashes.

Like he did in "Laundrette," Frears creates a community of outsiders, sharing an unfamiliar London. And the hotel walls enclose a strange new nation, a place where rules do not apply and terrible deeds take place in exchange for promises. Tautou, vulnerable and lovely, dreams of a city she's never seen: New York, where "in the winter, they put lights in the trees." The outdoor lights of London, glowing lollipop-bright in the night scenes, have a beauty of their own, but Senay can't see that far ahead; she's too busy looking over her shoulder.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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