At some point during Dirty Pretty Things, maybe the half-way point, I didn’t check, I realized the film’s non-traditional approach was holding it back. It’s ironic (or maybe not, I’m sure I’m using the word wrong) since the third act is the most predictable thing I’ve seen in recent memory. I sat and waited for my predictions to come true and all of them did… even the last few moments, which were straight from a Hollywood playbook. Being straight from that playbook isn’t even a bad thing, necessarily–yes, I realize I just said not playing from it was holding Pretty Things back–but changing… modes of transport (I was going to go metaphor, but got too self-conscious) handicaps the thing. What starts as a good, solid different film becomes everything it wasn’t at the beginning. It preaches, which is one of the great things the first two acts do not do.
I thought, when the film got going, it was going to be an interesting, hotel-set mystery. It isn’t. It’s half traditional thriller, half character study. The character study eventually loses. Very little happens in the first twenty or thirty minutes and, once it does, a lot of the film’s charm disappears. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is astounding. The poster I remember is the one with Audrey Tautou’s name above the title and the definite suggestion of a thriller. Obviously, American (especially Miramax) marketing of foreign product tends to be bullshit, but in this case, it’s an incredible slight against the film. But I’m glad, since I went into it knowing Ejiofor was good in other stuff and getting to see him–unexpectedly–in the lead. Tautou’s supporting, nothing more. She’s in it more than most of the other characters, since she’s the McGuffin in many ways. Any time something happens, it’s somehow because of Tautou (and occasionally because of Ejiofor’s concern for her). Sophie Okonedo is in it a lot less, but she has a lot more of an impact, just because of how her character shows up in the film. She tends to be in scenes where Ejiofor is defined through his actions, rather than his reactions to Tautou. Not to say Tautou’s performance isn’t good. It’s fine. It just doesn’t resonate very well… she doesn’t embody her character enough to make the character’s sometimes unlikely story fly.
As the villain, Sergi Lopez is excellent.
Frears does a good job throughout, maintaining an off-putting atmosphere to the film. He only really slips a couple times. Once with the Jaws dolly zoom and again in the film’s last few shots, when he inexplicably loses the distinctive color palette. At that point, however, the film had turned into the inspirational tale of an illegal immigrant instead of a story about a human being.
A few more words about Ejiofor. In many ways, since he is in most scenes, Dirty Pretty Things is a fantastic showcase for his ability. He gets to display a wide range–even though the script does him the disservice of trying to make him ominous, which is an absolutely ludicrous device (maybe the worst in the film), and even then he works through it. The only downside is how infuriating it is when the script makes him have to do (or say, especially say) something stupid.
Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Steven Knight; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; produced by Tracey Seaward and Robert Jones; released by Miramax Films and BBC Films.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Okwe), Audrey Tautou (Senay), Sergi Lopez (Sneaky), Sophie Okonedo (Juliette) and Benedict Wong (Guo Yi).
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