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Heroes of the Zeroes: Dirty Pretty Things

by on March 26, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“Dirty Pretty Things”
Rated R

Claustrophobia comes on in a snap — panicked gulps, sweat streams, adrenalized desperation. 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things” — a low-key little thriller about hospitality-industry immigrants in inhospitable environments — subtly sneaked up on viewers in similarly breathless fashion.

Basements, cabs, kitchens, offices, morgues, hallways — hardly places of rest, and director Stephen Frears crammed his protagonists in them all. To get comfortable would be to get caught — unfathomable when an alternative to inconspicuous service jobs in London is deportation to lands of squalor and oppression.

In a performance as compellingly noble, emotionally fragile and necessarily resourceful as Jimmy Stewart in any Alfred Hitchcock film, Chiwetel Ejiofor is Okwe.

Once a Nigerian doctor, Okwe is now a hotel porter. Uncovering a black-market organ trade, he wrestles over whether it’s an evil to be exposed or entrepreneurship to grant him and Turkish chambermaid Senay (Audrey Tautou) safe passage home.

There’s no gunfire and little violence, but Okwe and Senay’s dignity and chastity fall into perpetual peril from Juan, the black-market facilitator played by the ever-intimidating Sergi Lopez. And Okwe’s invisible moves through the system are a blessing and a curse — forcing a decision that could destroy him but save others.

Told he’s good at chess and bad at life, Okwe brusquely learns the latter isn’t a board that foretells the right moves. Although Steve Knight’s Oscar-nominated script got a bit on the nose discussing those who pretty that which we dirty, it told a compelling tale of perseverance, with a final sound effect like hope gaining altitude.