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Dirty Pretty Things - I think it's about people who live lives of such desperation


Feature by: Jack Foley

"I THINK it’s about people who live lives of such desperation," explains Oscar-winning High Fidelity director, Stephen Frears, when asked to describe his latest film, Dirty Pretty Things.

"As well as the wealthy society we live in, there are also people who live their lives in despair. And I don’t think that’s right. Well, I don’t think anybody would support that, but that’s the way the world is, and it seems to me that it’s not good for the world. Andit seems to me that that’s why people fly planes into buildings.

"We need to correct that despair. It’s as though nature is slightly out of balance. And if you create a society with this level of imbalance, this is what happens. It doesn’t bear thinking about."

Strong, emotive stuff indeed. But a strong indication of what to expect when going into Dirty Pretty Things, a thriller about the plight of illegal immigrants/asylum seekers living in London, which exposes the ruthless exploitation which so often takes place.

Frears’ film opened the 2002 London Film Festival and was rightly praised for being gritty, pertinent and thought-provoking. It also rates among the best British thrillers of recent years and boasts two outstanding performances - from West End theatre favourite, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amelie star, Audrey Tautou.

For Frears, though, the chance to take on Steven Knight’s script was too challenging to resist, particularly as it enabled him to return to the personal style of film-making that first brought him to attention with films such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears.

"If you’re after something that’s fresh and exciting, it’s not surprising that you end up in the immigrant community," he explains. "It is new - it wasn’t there when I was a child.

"If you make films of Edwardian novels, then you don’t deal with that, but if your taste is for more modern things, that’s where you’ll go, because it’s where the biggest changes in British society - well, London society - are happening. That’s what’s going on in modern British politics."

According to Smith, the brains behind TV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, one of the main strengths of Dirty Pretty Things is that it is not a ‘conventional, standard story by any means’.

"It’s dark and it tells a story about a part of London we’d rather not admit exists, but in some way we all benefit from whenever we visit certain hotels and restaurants," he explains. "And yet we ignore those people, because they’re in the shadows.

"So, it also has quite a message in it, about the exploitation of people who find themselves illegally in the UK and are forced, against their will in some cases, to carry out jobs they would prefer not to do.

"Aside from that, though, it’s a story with lots of twists and turns which will have audiences on the edge of their seats."

Frears concurs, referring to the film as a ‘gothic horror story’ and one which exposes the ‘underside of London’, as well as taking a look at how Britain has become multi-cultural.

"America has sort of done it already," continues the director. "You go to New York and it’s full of Koreans and Puerto Ricans or whatever.

"And, really, what’s happening in Britain is that it’s becoming a multi-cultural society - with a certain amount of kicking and screaming - and some people are struggling. So, yes, it’s full of multiple identities and multiple cultures."

To reflect this, Frears turned to a multi-cultural cast, enlisting the likes of Tautou and Ejiofor early on.

"Minorities are beginning to appear more and more in films," observes Frears, "and I was very aware that last year, actors like Benicio Del Toro, Javier Bardem and Don Cheadle were really starting to make their mark.

"So the idea of not using what you might call ‘conventional’ actors was interesting to me, and gradually the idea of casting Audrey surfaced."

Frears cast the French actress even before he had seen Amelie and, although tentative at first, Tautou was keen to take on a character she describes as ‘a modern young woman who just wants to live her own life’.

"Senay wants to go to New York because it’s her dream, but she’s prepared to do anything to get it," she explains. "She wants to have a different life than the one she’s got. But I don’t think Senay is a survivor in the tragic sense of the word - I don’t think, ‘poor girl’.

"I think she is strong, because she has to be strong to leave what she has left behind… And even if this movie has some romanticism, it’s not false."

For Ejiofor, who won the Outstanding Newcomer award in the London Evening Standard Awards 2000, and who recently completed a sell-out run as Christopher in Blue/Orange at the National Theatre, the challenge of taking on the lead role of Okwe was equally immense.

"The main themes of the film are isolation and survival instincts," he says. "Most of the main characters are, in some ways, totally isolated. They’re isolated as people, they’re isolated in terms of circumstance. In Okwe’s case, he’s an illegal immigrant and variously ignored by the indigenous populations - apart from governmental forces, who want to arrest him.

"He is also isolated because he’s pretending to be something he’s not. He’s playing a character, and that’s another theme of the piece: role-playing. In certain circumstances, people will take on another persona in order to survive from moment to moment," he adds.

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