Stephen Frears will never direct: ^ * a film about a comic book superhero ^ * an up tempo musical * a movie based on a classic TV comedy ^ * a lucrative Hollywood franchise ^ * Eddie Murphy, Ben Affleck, Tara Reid, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston, Governor Arnold
I am quite sure about this because I have been a fan of his films since he hit it big-by arthouse standards anyway-with 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette. Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed his adaptations of Dangerous Liaisons (’89) and The Grifters (’90). Unlike the majority of moviegoers, I even loved 1996’s Mary Reilly.
Over the course of nearly two decades certain things about Frears and his work have become evident. He is, for example, consumed by the human capacity for the seedy, the sordid and the just plain evil. Picture after picture is informed by his fascination with manipulation and deceit. He is the Anti-Capra in that he may have sympathy for the fly but his interest has been largely in the spider.
In scale and milieux Dirty Pretty Things has more in common with his earliest output than with anything the director did during his brief Hollywood heyday. It’s set in modern day London and offers a frills-free meditation on the many faces of oppression. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an elegant, understated performance in the role of a Nigerian immigrant who works days as a cabdriver, nights as a hotel clerk and chews the leaves of an unidentified plant to mask the need for sleep.
One night he is summoned to an unoccupied room to look into a vague report of a problem. There he finds a toilet overflowing, fashions a hanger into an instrument to dislodge the obstruction and pulls out a human heart. Which he feels strongly compelled to report to the police but does not due to the fact that he is in the country illegally. As we soon learn, he is a man of many secrets.
In her first English speaking role, Audrey Tautou costars as a Turkish born young woman who works in the same hotel as a chambermaid and lets Ejiofor use a couch in her small flat as the place where he theoretically sleeps. When Immigration authorities catch wind of the fact that she’s holding down a job-a violation for someone with her status-she’s forced to go into hiding and seek work in a garment industry sweat shop. To make matters worse, her boss there learns of her predicament and uses the knowledge to blackmail her into sexual servitude.
At the center of things, pulling strings behind the scenes, is the Spanish actor Sergi Lopez as a smooth operator who runs not only the hotel but a variety of under the table side enterprises involving everything from cash-only late night room service to forged passports. Early on, he appears harmless enough, merely a colorful character and scam artist. As events unfold and circumstances grow increasingly desperate for the other principals, however, it becomes clear he’s someone who long ago sold his soul and would be only too happy to take a commission on the sale of somebody else’s. Or any other part of them for that matter.
Frears’ vision here is bleak: As soon as his edge-dwellers shed one set of chains, they find themselves bound by another. Some of these chains are institutional. Others are social, economic or psychological. Others still are matters of the heart, the organ so emblematically at the center of Frears’ story.
In a world where real freedom is not possible, the director seems to say, the best one can hope for is human bondage. And, when all is said and done, Ejiofor and Tautou do indeed find themselves thus bound. In love but with obligations on opposite sides of the earth, the two may go their separate ways but, because they go to do the bidding of their hearts, the ending is a happy one.
At any rate, one as happy as a character can expect at the end of a film by Stephen Frears.