Dirty Pretty Things

“Dirty Pretty Things” is about the dirty things you sometimes have to do to make life pretty. It is set in London, which is just about perfect. This is a city with a lot of spectacular sights, known for its art and beauty, but which everyone knows has a filthy side, too. (Maybe Paris would have been better, now that I think of it.)

Among those seeking a better life in London is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian immigrant who is here without benefit of visa or passport. This makes his situation precarious, as anyone who wishes to do him ill knows they can do so without fear of Okwe going to the police.

As a result, Okwe tries to keep a low profile. He works days as a cab driver, nights as a desk clerk at the Baltic Hotel. He does not sleep, as far as we can tell, and he ingests the leaves of some plant now and then to keep himself awake.

He rents a place to live from Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish girl who works as a maid at the Baltic, except she cannot work under the provisions of her visa, nor can she sublet her apartment, which makes her situation pretty precarious, too, since she is doing both.

There is trouble almost as soon as the film begins when Okwe discovers that the blockage in one of the hotel’s toilets is a heart. He was a doctor in his homeland, so he recognizes the organ as being both human and healthy (except for being detached from its owner, obviously). You work at a hotel frequented by hookers, you’re going to find some unpleasant things. But a heart? That’s a bit much, even for the Baltic.

The hotel manager, Juan (Sergi Lopez), who is oily enough to prevent us from trusting him even for one second, suggests Okwe forget about the heart and get back to work. Okwe is reluctant to do so, but doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, either.

Where the heart came from, and what’s really going on, and how it will affect Okwe and Senay, that’s all spoiler material. What’s more important is who these people are. Written by Steve Knight and directed by Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity,” “The Grifters”), the film gives us many details that are not especially relevant to the plot, but which add dimension and flavor to the characters. Such a thing is rare in film: Usually, if a character has an odd trait like being sleep-deprived, it’s only so it can show up later as a plot device. Not here. Here, it’s to establish Okwe’s personality as a man seeking to escape his past, to lose himself in his work, and to keep busy.

The performances are nice all around, and Frears’ direction has a confident feel to it. He knows when to let humor take hold, and when to let things get exciting — and how to hold our attention when they do.

The film delves into London’s seediness, and takes us through several harrowing experiences, but does so without becoming gratuitously nasty. It does not revel in the darkness, nor does it seek to drag us down into it. Indeed, the whole point is that you gotta do what you gotta do, and there’s some hope in that philosophy.

B (1 hr., 47 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some sexuality, some violence and blood.)