Dirty Pretty Things (2003)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Miramax Home Entertainment, $29.99

“Strangers come to hotels in the night to do dirty things, and in the morning, it’s our job to make things look pretty again,” snarls the seedy manager of the upscale London hotel that employs Okwe (Chiwetal Ejiofor), an illegal African immigrant, in the film Dirty Pretty Things.

Haunted by his past in Nigeria, where he was once a doctor, Okwe struggles to survive in London by working at the hotel and as a cab driver. He rents a couch in the apartment of Turkish immigrant Senay (Audrey Tautou), one of the hotel’s maids, who dreams of fleeing London and living in New York City. During a routine room inspection, Okwe discovers a human heart blocking one of the hotel toilets, thereby uncovering a sinister criminal operation coordinated by the manager. Unable to tell the authorities because of his illegal status, Okwe eventually finds a way to take matters into his own hands.

A low-key thriller directed by Stephen Frears, Dirty Pretty Things depicts a criminal world that lies just below the surface of contemporary London’s service industry. To capture the gritty, lived-in images of the kitchens, hotel rooms, service hallways, alleys and parking garages where much of the action takes place, Frears turned to award-winning director of photography Chris Menges, ASC, BSC (The Mission, The Killing Fields, Comfort and Joy). Drawing on his documentary background, as well as his early collaborations with maverick directors Ken Loach, Neil Jordan and Frears, Menges’ cinematography in Dirty Pretty Things glows with an unusual texture, offering a stark urban palette while accentuating only the colors suggested by the practical (and often harsh) sources visible in the frame. For example, in a scene whose key light sources are golden sconce lamps lining the hotel hallway, the warm yellow is accentuated, which gives the entire location an exaggerated gold sheen. It’s a bold choice that is used repeatedly in the film, and it gives the otherwise grim landscape an incandescent quality — perfectly suiting a narrative that involves love (between Okwe and Senay) blooming in such a bleak and dangerous environment.

Miramax’s recent DVD release of Dirty Pretty Things features a sharp, accurate rendering of Menges’ work. The film’s contrast of cool grays and warm primary colors is well represented, and the transfer has minimal artifacting in even the most saturated hues; an intentionally visible fine grain in many of the exterior scenes; and deep, true blacks throughout. The audio is fully dimensional and vibrant, with a solid and busy 5.1 mix.

The disc offers a few supplemental materials, including an intelligent, absorbing, feature-length audio commentary by Frears that focuses on the genesis of the project, the importance of casting, and his different approaches to directing the film’s exceptional international cast. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Frears’ insightful commentary is a choppy, seven-minute-long “behind-the-scenes featurette” that offers quick interview snippets of perfunctory statements from the principal cast members. (Frears and other members of the production team also dutifully reel off quick bits of information.) Finally, the DVD includes a line-up of Miramax “Sneak Peak” advertisements, one of which shamelessly claims that the company is “leading the renaissance of the new golden age of cinema!”

In an era of often-interchangeable motion-picture thrillers, Dirty Pretty Things stands out as substantive and memorable. Like much of Frears’ work, it focuses on characters on the fringes of society who might otherwise go unnoticed, and examines how complicated their lives can be. Fans of the genre who missed seeing the picture during its modest theatrical run will enjoy this solid DVD presentation.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.