London Underground

Stephen Frears delivers accidental tourists caught up in Dirty Pretty Things.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou head an - unforgettable cast.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou head an unforgettable cast.

It's a great pleasure to behold a chunk of art that's both dank and fresh at the same time, and this appraisal perfectly fits the superb Dirty Pretty Things. The latest from veteran director Stephen Frears (Gumshoe, Prick Up Your Ears, High Fidelity) immediately transports the viewer to a subjective inner landscape, shaped by dub-funk, eerie fluorescent lighting, sticky streets, and urban decay -- or is that just a whiff of British mildew? Whatever you sense, this place is also literally London -- just not the travel-guide gloss on the fabled city usually dished out in pop cinema, nor the gothic wonderland of Victorian nightmare; rather, this is an awkward and uncomfortable in-between place, a restless void, an earthly purgatory.

Wait! Stop! Before that description sends you careening toward your third viewing of some stultifying sequel, consider: Dirty Pretty Things is also the best romantic love story I've seen so far this year, and -- just like that nebulous sentiment itself -- it's funny and disturbing, often simultaneously.

First we meet our hero, Nigerian taxi driver Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, truly one to watch). Like any cabbie, he's not simply a cabbie. Sure, he's also the night porter at the three-star Baltic Hotel, but there's something else there, scrunched down in his heart, concealed behind his good-natured poker face. For a while, he manages to prevent his personal truths from bubbling up -- skipping sleep, chewing a psychoactive weed from a sympathetic grocer, steadfastly staying noble. "I am here to rescue those who've been let down by the system," he announces to some stranded passengers. Via the movie's efficient clip, we learn that this may be the man's creed in all things, if only he can be strong and sharp enough to carry it through a daunting battery of tests.

Okwe's primary challenge is catalyzed by Senay (Audrey Tautou, luminous), a dewy Turkish national toiling illegally as a maid at the Baltic. In a business arrangement that wouldn't be lost on taxi drivers from Tokyo to Moscow, Okwe chastely rents Senay's couch for a few hours of horizontal restlessness between shifts. Unlike Okwe, however, Senay plays her cards face-up. Desperate to avoid becoming her traditionalist mother, yet clinging to vestiges of an old religion that doesn't fit her environment, she believes in nothing more than escaping to her fantasy vision of New York City. Their mutual respect and gentle appreciation soon blow their cover, transforming them both into fugitives on the lam from immigration goons, one of whom even sports a villainous mustache just begging to be twirled. Pardon the outrageous caricature, though, and the tension is palpable.

Once again, Frears has assembled an unforgettable cast, and this time all the leads are displaced persons, very much in keeping with the current face of London or any metropolis. At the Baltic, the cheekily named Juliette (Sophie Okonedo, fabulous) is both local girl and working girl, but she's a night creature, an invisible outsider (and, in keeping with her line of work, the queen of denial). In the year's heartiest act of cinematic symbolism, she leads Okwe to something blocking a toilet in one of the rooms -- which turns out to be an item most people need in order to survive. The discovery is lost on the Russian doorman Ivan (Zlatko Buric, blustery), but it causes the hotel's greaseball manager, Señor Juan, or "Sneaky" (Sergi Lopez, muy astuto), to sniff out Okwe's origins, leading to very difficult choices for the intrepid aliens. Without blowing too much, let's just say the movie is gutsy.

Dirty Pretty Things may lure you in with its coy title or the promise of more glamour from the international star of Amélie, but it's best appraised as a strong ensemble piece, a darkly dreamy slab of social commentary, and definitely one of the year's best films. In terms of its nervous immigrant theme, it sits proudly with recent successes like Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People or Paul Pavlikovsky's Last Resort.

Disorientation is rarely this poignant and intimate -- from bathing woes and sexual exploitation right up through David Byrne crooning, "Try to pretend it's not only glass and concrete and stone" over the end credits. And speaking of sequels, it would be a great treat to follow up on the story of Okwe's assistant-mortician friend, Guo Yi (Benedict Wong, brilliantly dry), who highlights many of the movie's keenest scenes.

Since the screenwriter here is Steve Knight, co-creator of broad entertainment such as TV's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, it's tempting to take him to task for his stridently old-fashioned characterizations -- guileless heroes, nasty villains -- and especially for a Stephen Frears film, there is a stark absence of ambiguity. Yet it works. Ejiofor's face is a symphony of loss and longing, without so much as a 16th note ringing false. Tautou succeeds not only with her cathartic whirling dervish (one of the year's delights), but with her very ambitious accent (in a foreign tongue, no less), registering the sentiments of one who's truly forlorn -- and not simply in a cute, crowd-pleasing way. Frears guides these would-be lovers wisely, as they guide us through their personal underworld.