Directed by Stephen Frears. UK. 2003.

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Directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, The Grifters) from a screenplay by Steven Knight, Dirty Pretty Things is a socially-conscious thriller that provides a glimpse into the "the people you do not see": the clandestine world of illegal immigrants and the traffickers in organ sales that exploit their desperation for profit. An estimated 15,000 illegal organ transplants have been performed worldwide in recent years, usually involving wealthy Westerners and the Third World's marginalized poor who sell their organs, most often kidneys, to stay alive. The fact that many countries have banned the sale of organs only means it has gone "underground" and is controlled by crime gangs. 

The film focuses on Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, drives a cab during the day, hustling passengers at the London airport. At night, he is a desk clerk at a multinational hotel watching all that come and go, having to chew on a medicinal root to stay awake. According to Knight, illegal aliens in London are so poorly paid they must have two or even three jobs to survive, and most menial staff in hotels have, at best, very precarious legal status, "The way you can walk", he says, "from the first world to the third world is just by walking through a door marked Staff Only". 

We find out that Okwe is a former doctor in Nigeria who sneaks medicine to his boss and fellow employees at the Cab Company to treat venereal diseases. When Okwe makes a gruesome discovery while checking an overflowing toilet, he learns the ugly truth about what it takes in London to remain one step ahead of the Immigration police. Asked to help a Somali in pain after a kidney has been removed, he finds out that Senor Juan, called Sneaky (Sergi Lopez), the manager at the hotel runs a black market business in organ transplants in exchange for providing false immigration papers. Sneaky defends his practice by saying that everyone benefits: the donor who achieves freedom from harassment, the recipient who is restored to health, and the businessmen who realize their profits. Of course, he does not mention the fact that the operations are often conducted in stealth by untrained doctors, leaving the donor dead or maimed for life. 

Okwe has a tentative relationship with Senay (Audrey Tatou), a Turkish refugee who works as a chambermaid at the same hotel in violation of her status. He uses her couch to sleep on but something dark in his past keeps him from revealing much of himself. When Okwe finds out that Senay is willing to take risks to leave for New York, he must choose between his longing to remain free, his desire to help Senay, and his sense of integrity. Although a too facile ending and some far-fetched characters (a happy hooker and a Zen-spouting pathologist) keep Dirty Pretty Things from achieving greatness, the strength and dignity of the two leads is enough to carry the film and make it a truly gripping experience that also enlightens about a well-hidden subject.

Howard Schumann
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