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Turkish Delight: Audrey Tautou plays a Turkish immigrant in 'Dirty Pretty Things.'

Heartbreak Hotel

Stephen Frears pities all the poor immigrants of London in 'Dirty Pretty Things'

By Richard von Busack

SOMEWHERE in the nether zone between social protest and melodrama, Dirty Pretty Things shifts around trying to find its groove. It helps that the estimable Chris Menges is the cinematographer--he courses through a half-lit London that's not too far removed from the city in Blade Runner, only with the neon on the fritz. Most of the action takes place in the Baltic, a business-class hotel on a quiet London street, between midnight and 5am.

The Baltic is staffed by a group of polyglot undocumented aliens; and the episodes are sewn together loosely with a murder-mystery plot. The main clue: a human heart found wedged in a toilet. Director Stephen Frears (working from a script by the British TV writer Steve Knight) doesn't just consider this discarded organ a catalyst for a mystery. He also suggests that the heart has a kind of symbolic quality regarding the dashed hopes of political refugees, enjoined not to work but not given enough money to live off.

The lead character--who discovers the heart--is a secretive Nigerian named Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who works the all-night shift in livery behind the counter. During the day, he drives an unlicensed cab. His few hours of sleep are taken on the couch of a rabbity Turkish girl named Senay (Amélie's Audrey Tautou, with a Catskills accent). The girl is terrified that her illegal subletting will be discovered, since the British migra is already very suspicious and shows up for stop-and-roust raids.

The general fishiness of this story may be due to the extreme number of red herrings laid down by Frears. The supporting cast is as full of likely suspects: an apparently cracking-up morgue incinerator attendant, with a taste for chess (Benedict Wong), a merry African prostitute named Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) and Ivan (Zlatki Buric), a Russian doorman up to God knows what kind of former Soviet skullduggery. But Juan, the hotel's night manager, known as "Sneaky" (Sergi López, the friendly maniac in With a Friend Like Harry), is the most sinister of the bunch. By the time he smooths down his sideburns with a spittle-wetted thumb, the film just about loses all credibility.

The show stealer is Okonedo. Frears may be uneven--that's the price of being a prolific director--but he's very well known for discovering actors. Okonedo is most familiar to mainstream audiences as an African princess in the second Ace Ventura picture. As--conceivably--the dirty pretty thing of the title, she provides comedy relief in a film whose almost Dickensian melodrama demands it (though Dickens tended to build his plots on incidents sturdier than one particularly gross urban legend). She enters and scans Okwe, who is watching her suspiciously. "What's the matter, don't they have hookers where you come from?" At the end, there's speech about the unseen aliens in our midst, how these immigrants are people we never see--"We drive your taxis, make your beds, suck your cocks." Hearing that last occupation named, Juliette smiles guiltily and gives a little half wave of her hand.

Dirty Pretty Things (R; 107 min.), directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Knight, photographed by Chris Menges and starring Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo, opens Friday at Camera 7 in San Jose and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the August 7-13, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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