Sunday, August 17, 2003

"This Time I Bite..."

Poor Audrey Tautou. That’s what I was thinking as I watched Stephen Frear’s new film, Dirty Pretty Things the other night. She’s carrying a lot of Amelie baggage in this picture, her first in an English speaking role and certainly one whose international distribution will rival, if not surpass, anything else she’s starred in before or since. Dirty Pretty Things features a glamorous and sultry shot of Tautou in profile (with a hint of naked shoulder) on its marketing poster. You could be irked that such a scene never appears in the film, or you could applaud the fact that Tautou manages to avoid any resemblance (other then she’s devastatingly charming) to her powerful work in Amelie and embodies, very believably, the character of a Turkish refugee (the accent rarely falters) struggling to get by in London.

The women sitting behind us, however, cooed every time Tatou appeared on the screen. According to an article I recently read, over 25 million people have seen Amelie- and clearly the powerful impression this role has left was still resonating with these (there were 3 of them, each weighing in repeatedly) viewers. “Oh, she’s so cute,” they’d remark, when clearly what she was doing on screen, working at a sweatshop, for example, or contemplating the selling of her kidney, was obviously anything but adorable. Their relationship to Senay, the Turkish refugee she was playing, seemed palpably defined by her turn as Amelie- as if any moment they expected her to begin anew her good works with garden gnomes.

The film she’s actually in, a refreshingly multiethnic mainstream feature with working class sympathies and a tidy, if not entirely successful plot “straight from the headlines,” revolves around a scrappy gang made up, more or less, of illegal immigrants and their morally twisted confrontations with the exploitive and seamy underbelly poking through the so-called better life. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Okwe, oozes noble compassion. He cares deeply, maybe even too much. He’s the film’s conscience, its moral backbone. As such, he’s never given the chance to properly stretch out and do something other then radiate wholesomeness. He veers dangerously close to embodying the unfortunate Hollywood template for the kind, wise and stately African that Morgan Freeman has held for years. He, like everything else about this film, however, manages to hover just beyond its more generic underpinnings and offers something oddly moving and compelling.

A lot of what works with this picture is the dissonance that comes from how it weaves so brashly between humor and tragedy. There’s a queasy undertow at work and Frears never seems to reconcile the two. A couple of immigration enforcement officers have a manic, cartoonish quality to them, bursting into otherwise somber scenes like a couple of keystone cops. There’s a hooker who morphs from coyly malevolent (did she stuff that human heart down the toilet? you’re led to believe) into a hooker with a heart of gold. Sergi Lopez, playing Sneaky, struts and hams through almost every scene he’s in like some kind of vaudeville villain while his actions are, in contrast, shrewd and barbaric. Benedict Wong, as Guo Yi, is a mortuary attendant who deadpans some of the film’s most slyly hilarious lines. It’s a strange energy being thrown off, both wacky and earnest, and while this gives the film its intriguingly off-kilter vibe, it also acts to stop the film from ever settling into a groove. It ends up feeling like it could have used a few more minutes in the oven.

There’s a powerful bow wrapping up the film’s final moments. Tautou and Ejiofor handle its unraveling beautifully. It’s deceptive though, communicating something between its two characters with an enormity not entirely deserved. Still, there’s no resisting, for a moment at least, its magnanimity.

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