The concept of England as a sometimes-sloppy melting pot of cultures is still finding its way on film. Having addressed the subject in 1985's "My Beautiful Laundrette," director Stephen Frears returns to the territory in his new thriller, Dirty Pretty Things. And this time, he's assigned the role of the uneasy cultural walk-in to Chiwetel Ejiofor, an accomplished London stage actor whose previous film work includes a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" (1997).
"It's about a side of London that isn't necessarily always filmed," Ejiofor says of the Frears movie, in which a group of foreign-born workers come up hard against a sometimes viciously exploitative society. "I was very happy to be part of that. I thought it was a fascinating piece about a city that I know very well, and a city that I haven't seen representations of in certain ways."
It's also a real inside-out story, one that trusts its non-native characters to inhabit their own world, free from the patronizing imposition of a kindly indigenous type to act as a touchstone for the mainstream audience. And while Ejiofor dismisses the idea of such a concession as an "unnecessary device," he recognizes that the pressure is thus greater for his character, the put-upon Nigerian Okwe, to maintain his footing as a central figure.
"You've got to make sure that he's a person with every sort of complication, but never becoming sort of inanely benevolent," the actor says. "Or just a kind of looking glass."
So although Okwe's role is largely observational, he's also the one who faces the movie's central evil head-on. The exact nature of that conflict is the script's killer hook, and it won't be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that the climax -- in which Okwe confronts his sea of troubles with the only weapons at his disposal -- has provoked an identical reaction the two times Ejiofor has seen the film with an audience (one an older "white, middle class" assemblage in Italy, the second a more "eclectic" London Film Festival crowd.)
"They applaud. They love it!" he laughs. "Every audience that I've sat in the film with, they absolutely love it that malevolence is punished." Only later, he surmises, might some misgivings begin to surface.
"If somebody becomes what they beheld, have they done right?" he ponders. "It's an incredibly tricky one to figure out sometimes."
No such qualms are exhibited by the film's deepest rotter of a character, a corrupt hotel manager played by Sergi López. As evidenced by projects like "With a Friend Like Harry" and "Jet Lag," the squinty-eyed L—pez is building a cottage industry as something of a professional bastard. And from what Ejiofor has seen, he's enjoying every minute of it.
"He's got this incredibly brilliant energy and smile on his face. He gets out of his car and comes onto the set, and everybody loves him, and he's laughing and joking. And the director says Ôaction' and he does his scene, and then he laughs his way back to his car and he's off. And in the meantime, between Ô action' and Ôcut,' he's given this incredibly malevolent performance."