Feb 2003 Journal

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Denizens of shadowland

On general release, Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things has been – favourably – described as a film about London, not a single shot of which will boost tourism. A lot of the action unfolds inside a cavernous luxury hotel whose sinister, brooding ambience puts one in mind of Kafka’s Castle.

Most of the scenes are shot at night, partly because the hero is a night porter but also on the symbolic grounds that the entire cast of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants lead shadowy lives. They exist in a twilight zone where some fall victim to exploitation – including sexual abuse – by their own kith and kin, while others are the hunted quarry of sadistic immigration officers.

But Dirty Pretty Things is also a thriller whose main plot line is the step-by-step uncovering of a hugely lucrative, and sometimes lethal, trade in human body parts.

Even so, I, boasting first-hand, if semi-historical, acquaintance with refugee problems, found aspects of the film hard to credit. At the start of the Third Millennium, when the Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a well-established UK institution, are asylum seekers really as clueless and friendless as here depicted? And can one believe the overnight conversion of the Nigerian from melancholy drifter into resourceful action man who hoists the promoter of the lethal body parts trade with his own petard?

All that takes a lot of swallowing, but what I found most dubious about the film was its underlying premiss. It is this: London enjoys its profitable and prestigious First World status partly because the dirty work needed to keep a metropolis ticking over is performed by menials from the Third World, to whose very existence Londoners are blithely impervious. Dirty Pretty Things wants to have it both ways by sending out a politically correct message gorily packaged in thriller form. It, moreover, forces one into a Tebbitt-like posture and to ask: if the UK is so inhospitable to asylum seekers, why do so many make it their favoured destination?
RG

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