Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 16, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Dirty Pretty Things

Current Status
In Season
97 minutes
Limited Release Date
Chewitil Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi Lopez
Stephen Frears
Steven Knight
Mystery and Thriller, Romance

We gave it a C

There’s nothing subtle about Dirty Pretty Things, a TV-ready crime-thriller plot dressed up in the provocative verbiage of a muckraking exposé. In the apocalyptic contemporary London envisioned by director Stephen Frears, capitalism has ravaged society no less destructively than the Rage Virus that infects the same city in ”28 Days Later.” Only in this case, the uninfected — all of them immigrants, many of them illegal and working more than one job to survive — suffer agonies unique to their station. ”We are the ones who drive your cabs and clean your rooms and suck your c—s,” a trio of downtrodden hotel workers announces during a climactic scene in an ugly parking garage. But the speeches (by first-time screenwriter Steven Knight, who was one of the creators of TV’s ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”) don’t need an occasion to pour forth. Here’s Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the saintly Nigerian doctor-turned-cabbie-and-night-clerk who’s the hero of the drama, trolling for a fare at the airport in the first scene: ”I’m here to rescue those who have been let down by the system.”

”Things” is jammed with banner-ready political rhetoric, and the relentlessness of the lectures is wearying. The plot, on the other hand, is a standard contraption built on enduring urban anxieties and involving a nasty hotel-room trade run by a Spanish schemer (Sergi Lopez), in which desperate illegals swap their organs — kidneys are popular — for forged passports. ”Amélie”’s Audrey Tautou, in her first English-speaking role, droops as a Turkish hotel maid spellbound by the magic of America. Too innocent a character to be handed any firebrand dialogue, she nevertheless pines for a New York City where, she imagines with a fervor we are meant to pity, ”there are lights in the trees.”

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