After all these years, there's still nothing like a little Gothic shock to seal an argument. With a ghoulish spirit Poe would likely embrace, the intimate suspense drama "Dirty Pretty Things" employs the shady doings at a London hostelry to point up the plight of immigrants -- both legal and otherwise -- who find that freedom can carry a grisly price.
In the U.K. without the government's knowledge or approval, Nigerian-born Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) works two jobs to keep his head above his adoptive culture's water: one as a cab driver, the other as a desk man at the dodgy Baltic Hotel. In the off hours, he shares a humble living space with Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish refugee who's jeopardizing her precarious status with the authorities by giving paid refuge to an illegal. The mysterious Okwe is shaking off an undefined Nigerian hangover, but any opportunity he might have to re-examine his past for our benefit is pre-empted by a bizarre crisis that transpires one night at the Baltic. Investigating a room recently vacated by a chatty hooker (Sophie Okonedo), he locates a foreign object clogging up the toilet.
It's a human heart.
You'd think a discovery like that would prompt some degree of administrative concern, but Okwe's sleazy boss (Sergi López) is more than willing to let sleeping organs lie. Why kick up a fuss, when the comings and goings of the guests -- especially the really ethnic ones -- are clearly beneath his regard? Behind his apathy, though, rests the hint of a dark secret. Something sinister is going on at the Baltic, and getting to the bottom of it will have serious implications for the entire shadow subculture of immigrants that Okwe represents.
"Represents" is a dangerous word, but "Dirty Pretty Things" is so well-made that it's easy to accept its cast of walking signifiers as people. Except for a brief, overly didactic speech near the end, the film would rather show us the horror of third-class citizenship than tell us about it. Director Stephen Frears ("The Grifters," "Dangerous Liaisons") matches the involving weltschmerz of his actors to the movie's night-draped surroundings, plunging us into a seedy, illicit economy whose sad inhabitants are forced to retain their already meager standing by brokering sexual favors and worse.
Sacrifice in the name of emancipation is the movie's leitmotif, and it all culminates in a tense, exciting climax that requires protagonist Okwe to make a defining moral choice. (Hey, remember them?) The way in which he reconciles his humanitarian impulses with his growing disgust for the system may strike some as extreme. But it's actually in the grand tradition of visceral fiction, a physical response to a spiritual injustice. "Dirty Pretty Things" isn't exactly subtle, but what use is subtlety when you've got a tell-tale heart?