Immigrant blues

Stephen Frears gets to the heart of the refugee’s dilemma

by Nathan Hall

After the disorienting effects of Sept. 11, 2001, eventually subsided, one early policy change that both the right and left seemed to initially agree on was tightening immigration enforcement. The theory went that the hijackers succeeded mainly by exploiting lax Immigration and Naturalization Service security and other law enforcement loopholes. Curiously, Attorney General John Ashcroft, a strident voice for paleo-conservative causes, declined to prosecute those asleep at the switch. Instead, he happily joined our remaining allies in ordering massive raids, legalizing racial profiling, deporting thousands, holding immigration hearings behind closed doors and constructing concentration camps in order to isolate prisoners of the Afghan war.

The tactic was as strategically unsound as it was morally unjust – al-Qaida is, even by conservative estimates, winning the war, while quality of life for illegal aliens and asylum seekers alike has decreased dramatically. The new film “Dirty Pretty Things,” a subtle thriller with a wondrously crafted story, turns a harsh searchlight on the invisible world of the taxi drivers, maids and prostitutes who don’t seem to belong anywhere.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Okwe, a stoic but generous doctor who flees from the chaos of Nigeria and ends up working the front desk for a posh West London hotel. He crashes on the couch of the shy, unworldly Senay, played by Audrey Tautou of “Amelie” fame, a Turkish hotel maid desperate to scam a visa. The swank, luxurious joint they work at is run with an iron fist by a slimeball named Senor Juan, known as “Sneaky” to his employees. Senor Juan, played by Sergi Lopez, oversees a highly profitable sideline in drugs, hookers and even more corrupt dealings. Okwe has his nerves shaken by finding a human heart in the toilet. And things get a lot worse from there.

The movie, directed by Stephen Frears, revisits here similar outsider, crack-in-the-sidewalk themes explored in 1990’s “The Grifters.” Screenwriter Steve Knight succeeds in this picture by bringing out the absolute miserable worst in everyone. The pungent, putrid and bleary-eyed look of a severely blighted inner-city London aids in emphasizing the underhanded, greedy and unjust circumstances that lurch inexorably toward the gruesome finale.

“The hotel business is about strangers,” Senor Juan explains. At least now they don’t have to be as strange to us.

“Dirty Pretty Things,” rated R, directed by Stephen Frears. Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audre Tautou and Sergi Lopez. Now showing at the Lagoon Cinema, (612) 825-6006.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]