Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

The intriguingly titled Dirty Pretty Things returns Stephen Frears, the gifted but wildly uneven British director, to the multicultural English milieu of his low-budget 1985 masterpiece, My Beautiful Laundrette. The result is absorbing and unsettling but weakened by a screenplay that compromises its dark vision with a climactic lapse into spurious uplift.

Frears and screenwriter Steve Knight set their film in the London underground of illegal African, Asian, and European immigrants. Dirty Pretty Things’ protagonist is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian-born physician who escapes from Lagos to London to evade government prosecution, driving a cab by day and working as a hotel desk clerk at night. He occasionally enjoys the luxury of a sofa nap in the cramped apartment occupied by Senay (Audrey Tautou), a sympathetic, unworldly 22-year-old Turkish Muslim whose temporary visa forbids her from working but who covertly toils as a maid at the hotel.

One morning, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a prostitute who works the hotel, complains of a stopped-up toilet in a room where she’s just turned a trick. Okwe investigates and, to his shock, discovers the blockage is caused by a human heart. This leads him to another revelation: Juan (Sergi Lopez), the oily, alcoholic day receptionist, is using the hotel as the locus of a racket in which destitute immigrants trade their kidneys for forged passports and cash. Subsequently, Okwe is summoned to assist the victim of one of these hack surgeries, an old man with a gaping, infected wound. Meanwhile, Senay, tailed by immigration agents, is forced to abandon her job and accept employment in a sweatshop whose manager sexually exploits her. Seeing no other option, she decides to give up a kidney so she can join a countrywoman who has moved to New York. Horrified, Okwe attempts to save her from what could prove to be a fatal decision.

Frears artfully succeeds in taking us behind familiar social façades to hotel service areas, taxi-dispatcher storefronts, and illicit sweatshops, introducing us to characters who are, in Okwe’s words, “the people you do not see.” Shot largely on location, Dirty Pretty Things benefits from the contribution of Chris Menges, whose stylized cinematography prevents the film’s bleaker aspects—the kidney-removal scenes, the crushing economic and psychological oppression of its characters—from becoming too painful to witness. Rather than settling for the obvious neo-documentary approach of handheld camerawork and a dingy palette, and rubbing our noses in despair, Menges meticulously composes his darkly hued images to allow a slight but critical distance on the action.

English stage veteran Ejiofor, the son of Nigerian parents, gives a subtly powerful performance as Okwe. Lopez’s Juan, known as Sneaky by the hotel’s staff, makes a contemptible but colorful villain, a jokester who becomes progressively appalling as we discover the depths of his corruption. Okonedo is spunkily appealing as Juliette, and Benedict Wong provides some comic relief as Okwe’s pal Guo Yi, who works in a hospital crematory and wryly articulates his disenchantment with English society and the capitalist system. Tautou, making her English-language debut, is predictably fetching but not as expressive as the rest of the ensemble.

What doesn’t work—and what ultimately relegates Dirty Pretty Things to honorable near-miss status—is Knight’s unnecessarily simplistic screenplay. His characters are almost allegorical exemplars of good and evil. Okwe’s morals are so unyielding that we immediately reject the rumor that he has escaped to England because he’s murdered his wife. Even living on the edge of survival, he’s never tempted to abandon his ethics. Virginal Senay is an embodiment of wide-eyed purity—Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s silent features. Though superficially hardhearted, Juliette turns out to be our old friend the whore with a heart of gold, and Juan is nothing less than the apotheosis of malevolence.

In Dirty Pretty Things’ closing reel, virtue is rewarded and vice punished. An implausibly neat resolution to almost any realistic film, it’s a disappointingly gutless conclusion to a movie that so persuasively depicts a culture riddled with injustice.

The Heart of Me shares BBC funding, a mid-’30s setting, location shooting on the Isle of Man, and Ray Noble’s evocative ballad “The Very Thought of You” with the recent I Capture the Castle. Here the similarity ends. The latter movie is as airy as a down comforter, but the new arrival is as forbiddingly leaden as a dosshouse mattress.

Based on Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove, The Heart of Me depicts the doomed romantic triangle of two upper-class sisters and the man they both love. Plummy-voiced Olivia Williams stars as Madeleine, the conventional, self-controlled wife of an ostensibly conservative businessman, Rickie Masters (Paul Bettany). Both express concern about the welfare of Madeleine’s reckless bohemian sister, Dinah, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Costume designer Sheena Napier lets us know that Dinah is a Free Spirit—she sports motley patchwork outfits and an unruly mop of Ronald McDonald hair. Madeleine, predictably, wears severely tailored clothes in beige, mauve, and other sensible colors and has bobbed hair plastered in place with an unidentified substance, possibly marmalade.

The narrative begins in 1934, at the funeral of the sisters’ father. Shortly thereafter, impetuous Dinah exits Madeleine’s home during a storm. “It’s raining,” Rickie warns as she announces her departure. “Yes,” Dinah replies knowingly, “I shall get wet.” At this point, viewers can’t be blamed for assuming that they’re watching a parody in the tradition of the stiff-upper-lip send-ups that Mike Nichols and Elaine May performed in the late ’50s.

If only this were so.

Several scenes later, Rickie, who hitherto has exuded slightly more sexuality than a croquet wicket, unexpectedly commences a tempestuous affair with Dinah. She soon finds herself pregnant and, determined to bear this love child, moves to the windswept coast to be attended by her devoted friend Bridie (Alison Reid), a lesbian painter. On his way to be present at the baby’s birth, Rickie has an icy automobile accident, at which point the narrative leaps 12 years and resumes with an edgy post-World War II reunion of the now-estranged sisters. In flashbacks, we learn of the sad fates of four other family members before the cautionary, oddly unmoving narrative ends on a forced note of reconciliation.

Only an ensemble of uncommonly resourceful actors could make this musty weeper affecting; The Heart of Me’s cast doesn’t even come close. With watery, kohl-stained eyes peering from her tiny head, elfin Bonham Carter, that brave little creature, is about as passionate as a Walter Keane urchin. Pale, emotionally anemic Bettany, physically reminiscent of a younger, dermatologically unchallenged James Woods, is also ill-equipped to project sexual abandon. The sight of this naked pair’s fumbling attempts to work up some softcore steam is enough to make sensitive viewers ponder monastic vocations. Although Williams, who has more erotic potential than her co-stars, is also allotted a brief opportunity to shed her repressed-woman wardrobe, she’s stifled by the straitjacket role of the possessive but passionless wife and mother.

It’s unlikely that any director could enliven this mawkish material. Plodding Dublin-born Thaddeus O’Sullivan was a particularly maladroit choice. The filmmaker’s 1990 debut feature, December Bride, about a turn-of-the-century Irish ménage à trois, similarly failed to catch fire. One can’t help wondering why producers continue to assign him potentially incendiary material only to have it freeze in his icy hands. CP