In a season of competing big budget blockbusters, Stephen Frears, a literate
film director if there ever was one, graces our movie screens with a fine, if
depressing, character thriller. His film has everything the discerning
moviegoer might look for: engrossing story, outstanding cast, incisive
directing, subtle development, and the right length. If it were a novel it
could do no better in focusing on what it might be like to be an immigrant
seeking refuge in the safe harbor of a multicultural society where secrecy is
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an articulate cab driver soliciting fares at a
London airport. But, then, when his shift ends, he takes a chew of khat to
keep him awake and becomes a hotel desk clerk and concierge. No matter the
job, he's a virtually sleepless man with more capability than his occupations
At the hotel, when he's informed by resident prostitute Juliette (Sophie
Okonedo) that there's been trouble in the room she just worked in, Okwe
investigates. He finds the toilet plugged up and proceeds to extract the
blockage, which he recognizes as a human brain. Driven by his sense of
responsibility, he brings it to hotel owner-manager Juan (Sergi Lopez). At
Okwe's suggestion that the police be notified, Juan calls them and hands the
phone to Okwe to report the discovery. Okwe registers the personal
ramifications of doing so, and drops the phone.
But, now, Juan's scheming mind is wondering how his humble, tight-lipped
employee would know a human brain when he sees one. Perceiving an
opportunity to gain leverage over the man, he proceeds to investigate the
enigmatic desk clerk, and learns that Okwe is in fact a doctor from Legos,
Africa... in hiding.
Hiding with Okwe is fellow employee, chambermaid Senay (Audrey Tautou) who is
trying to avoid discovery by the authorities for being employed against the
dictates of her resident status. Living together as a matter of money
pragmatism, there is some growing emotional attachment between them, as well.
Senay, as a muslim and a single woman, is a virgin, and Okwe has no designs
on changing this status even as he protects his beautiful roommate against
discovery by pursuing immigration cops.
As a desk clerk, the activities in the hotel revolve around him -- by phone,
by TV monitor, by lobby activity. Trying hard to draw no attention to
himself, he's the paragon of silent discretion even when strange and sinister
patterns of activity roil around him. But discretion doesn't stop him from
trying to learn what's going on, and he discovers hints of a sordid trade in
live kidneys for transplants being run within the hotel. The clandestine
operation is confirmed when Juan negotiates for the use of his highly
prized medical skill.
As near discovery forces Senay to endure humiliations, and as their
situations grow more desperate, the pair face solutions that compromise
deep-seated values which neither can violate. In that dilemma lies the heart
of the drama. And, throughout their darkening ordeal, their mutual regard
persists as more than the fellowship of fugitives.
The overall effect of the storytelling is the steady unveiling of what life
is like in the shadows of the legal system. Through these characters, we get
an unflinching peek into the sink of depravity that lurks within the general
population. A major contributant to the sick feeling we get from what
screenwriter Steve Knight's powerful and crisply structured script reveals is
its terrifying plausibility.
Those who thought Audrey Tautou was "Amelie" will see, in the
opposite extreme she creates here, the full power of creative acting. The
hunted, desperate Senay is on the opposite earth tilt from the Audrey
Hepburnish charmer with the springy irridescence of that young lady on the
tail of a lover. Here, speaking English with a Turkish accent, you get so
wrapped up in her struggle for survival that you tend to forget the world
class beauty she manifests.
But, that's hardly all this artful tale offers in acting brilliance.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's measured exposure of a very complex character keeps us
gripped by the power of the restraint. Allowing the story to "do its work",
the truth of his identity emerges from what dealing with immorality on
foreign soil forces upon his man of uncynical decency. This native of England
with Nigerian parents (who helped him with his accent) has only done a
handful of films before, notably as Ensign Covey in "Amistad" (1997), but his
introspective work here should put him on a journey of wider recognition.
Both as written and as portrayed, the villain of the piece, Juan, is another
discovery of sizable proportions. How astutely Spaniard Sergi Lopez applies
smiling geniality as his character exploits people in extremity. His
effective restraint builds a criminal who might well make you fear him more
than a mob hit man in your living room. Even as you enjoy his style,
employing no physical threat, his methods of coercion amount to pure mental
No cast member is a throwaway part nor is any character less than accurately
realized. Sophie Okonedo as prostitute Juliette adds a nice flourish of
street smart whimsy to the dark corridors of the somber tale. Guo Yi gives
us out only sigh of relief in his portrayal of Benedict Wong, Okwe's only
reliable confidante and enabler.
Stephen Frears, established himself as a director of high literary standards
and a fine taste for meaningful themes with his 1990 hit, "The Grifters".
Since then, he has strayed, exploring not only a world of subjects in
different countries but the gamut of budgets and casts to fit. He's gone
from the modest exploration of Irish indoctrination, "Liam", to the politically agitating
"My Beautiful Laundrette", to the more mainstream over-hip mishmosh of "High Fidelity", and to the
rare Julia Roberts flop of "Mary Reilly."
His choice of cinematographer Chris Menges, who won the 1984 Academy Award
for his brilliantly photographed "The Killing Fields", steps away from his
directing duties to draw a modeled range of dark tones in textured support of
these dire story themes.
If budgets and boxoffice weren't dominating requirements, one could predict
nominations in all categories. Unfortunately, though, this is a thriller that
is destined to garner more buzz on the critical side of success than in box
office traffic. Considering what has been filling theatres this year so
far, it's a truly welcome arrival. For those discerning moviegoers mentioned
earlier, it's a must-see!
~~ Jules Brenner