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The Invisible London of Dirty Pretty Things; or Dickens, Frears, and Film Today

Ted Hovet

Near the end of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, a film released in 2002 and set in contemporary London, three of the primary characters appear in a dank, underground parking garage to hand over an item — which we know to be a fresh human kidney packed in an ice cooler– to a well dressed, white Englishman. Upon paying the three a large amount of cash, the man asks, “How come I’ve never seen you people before?” Okwe, the Nigerian immigrant and protagonist of the film, responds: “Because we are the people you do not see.”

In this film, though, we do see them: Okwe, who works around the clock at several menial jobs; Senay, a Turkish immigrant who dreams of joining a sister in the United States; and Juliet, a black prostitute who comes to the aid of the other two with her knowledge of the shady underworld of London. Written for the screen by Stephen Knight, Dirty Pretty Things continually reveals to its viewer people, places, and things that are overlooked or unseen. Okwe and his friends are not intentionally hiding (despite the rather shady exchange described above — more on the kidney below); they are rendered invisible by their professions, their class position, their race, and their legal status. Populated by the working poor and immigrants from every corner of the world, Dirty Pretty Things attempts to show a side of London far from its iconic landmarks and familiar byways. But the point of the film is that these different “sides” of London are not at all far from each other; despite a powerful tendency to think of them as separate, the experiences of these characters demonstrate that they are interdependent and inexorably linked.

With its settings in London’s working class neighborhoods and its sweeping range of characters, the film fits neatly into a Dickensian tradition of exploring a metropolis in which the darkest, most depressed corners serve to illuminate the unexpected (or ignored) social and economic connections that serve as the lifeblood of the entire city. In the commentary track accompanying the DVD, Frears complains that the difficulty of filming in London is that the city had been “over filmed … so we were always trying to find bits of London that hadn’t been in every other film”[1] — an impulse that brings to mind the way in which Dickens’ own roaming around the new London of the Victorian age informed his fiction and journalism. Of course to call something “Dickensian” now borders on a cliché that dangerously flattens both Dickens and the object it describes, but Dirty Pretty Things can hardly escape the comparison if limited to some specific narrative elements like plot, point of view, and theme. Further, it offers a particularly good case in which to once again examine the influence of Dickens’ fiction on film narrative as a whole — a link first asserted by Soviet theorist Sergei Eisenstein in the 1940s in his essay “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Today.”[2] How does Frears’ vision of 21st century London provide insight into the continued significance of Dickens in the medium of film?

The film’s project to reveal the unseen begins with careful attention to concrete objects — buildings, neighborhoods, homes, and of course people. Filmed on location in London and in the Shepperton Studios, Dirty Pretty Things takes us to unfamiliar areas and denies us helpful establishing shots that orient us to the city — never once do we see, for instance, Big Ben, Westminster Abby, or Piccadilly Circus. It uses actors of many different nationalities who, if they speak English at all, speak it with a wide variety of accents and inflections. In doing so Dirty Pretty Things inevitably presents, at least to the typical cinemagoer, a different London — if, indeed, it is even “London” at all. The film opens with Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) soliciting fares for his cab (not, of course, the iconic and “official” black cab of London but a simple passenger car) at Stansted Airport. He promises his potential customers that he can get them to Buckingham Palace for ten pounds, but instead of following him to this comfortingly familiar locale the film’s next scene takes us back to the cab office in an immigrant neighborhood of South London. As he enters the office, Okwe hands his identification card and license over to another driver, then reminds him to remove the crucifix around his neck: “your name is now Mohammed.” This exchange, in which clearly foreign workers blithely switch documents that disguise their true identity and status, may certainly raise anxieties about safety and the ability of the state to account for (and thus control) the inhabitants of the city– anxieties that have likely increased in the years since this film was released. Yet this unfamiliar world, one of unstable, fluid identity, also reveals mutual support and camaraderie among its inhabitants. Far from threatening, the film depicts these characters as hard-working individuals trying to forge a living as they provide a crucial service to all of the “official” and “legal” inhabitants of the city.

Eventually we learn that Okwe is a doctor who has fled Nigeria for political reasons. He works both as a cab driver and as a desk clerk at a hotel, and shares an apartment illegally with Senay (Audrey Tautou) who herself works illegally at the same hotel. Early in the film, Okwe befriends Juliet (Sophie Okendo), who frequently plies her trade in the hotel. The complicated web of (at best) quasi-legal social relationships in this film mirrors the crowded, labyrinthine neighborhoods in which it is set. Other than the hotel (filmed in Whitehall opposite, interestingly, the Ministry of Defense), nearly every location in the film must be entered through a maze of tunnels or back ways — Okwe accesses Senay’s apartment, for instance, by cutting through the back of a convenience store and going up a fire escape. His cab office, approached by driving through a series of tunnels, is tucked away under a bridge where trains endlessly roar past. Okwe’s friend Guo Yi (a Chinese immigrant) works in a dank, dingy morgue in the bowels of a hospital where he happily lets friends stay when they need a safe place.

The film, like Dickens’ fiction, provides an omniscient point of view that gives us a tour of invisible, unseen places, taking the viewer past the surface images of London into its unfilmed yet vital netherworld. In an important critique of traditional first-world cinematic practices, Robert Stam and Roberta Spense argue that the very structure of the classical film apparatus may potentially grant the viewer not just omniscience, but a subject position of dominance over any “outside” group: “The magic carpet provided by these [cinematic] apparatuses flies us around the globe and makes us, by virtue of our subject position, its audiovisual masters. It produces us as subjects, transforming us into armchair conquistadores, affirming our sense of power while making the inhabitants of the third world objects of spectacle for the first world’s voyeuristic gaze.”[3] As Dirty Pretty Things makes clear, one no longer needs to leave the confines of London to experience this sort of global travel. The location shots of the tented street markets in Dalston, outside of Senay’s apartment, make London appear to be (in Frears’ own words) “a Middle East town.” In another scene, Okwe has (illegally, of course) secured some medical supplies for a victim of a botched kidney operation (here we have a kidney again — Okwe has discovered with horror that the hotel he works in is a hub for the selling of human organs in exchange for passports). He takes the supplies to the Tower Block in Greenwich, which is filled with Somalian immigrants, including the victim and his family, where among them only a nine-year-old girl speaks English. When Senay later asks where he has been, Okwe replies, “Africa.”

Crucially, though, Frears refuses to make this a “magic carpet ride” in which we view the subjects as, again in the terms of Stam and Spense, “spoken objects” (889). Frears (again like Dickens in his fiction, I would argue) allows them to speak for themselves not just through the images of the film but through its very formal structure, in which we literally view London and the events of the movie through their eyes. Very early in the film, when we first see Okwe working at the hotel, a sequence begins with a shot of a clock. The very next shot shows a close-up of Okwe’s face. His eyes are looking up and away, then return to a more central position — so we now know that the shot of the clock was from his point of view. Okwe then turns his head to look at something else, and we cut to his point of view of a monitor for the closed-circuit camera filming the hotel’s entrance. This shot is held for a moment, then as a phone rings the camera swings around to view a computer monitor that indicates the origin of the call, meaning that the camera (and, vicariously, the viewer) has just made the exact movement of Okwe’s eyes. This simple expository sequence positions Okwe not as an object of voyeuristic observation, but as the active subject of the film, and the viewer is placed firmly in identification with his position. Obviously the techniques of character identification differ in fiction, but a rough equivalent might be suggested in the way in which, for instance, Dickens describes the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit not simply in neutral, expository prose but directly through the point of view of the characters housed there. In one remarkable passage, we directly share the psychological and physiological effect of growing up in a prison, when Amy “look[ed] up at the sky through the barred window, until, when she turned her eyes away, bars of light would appear between her and her friend [the turnkey], and she would see him through the grating, too.”[4] This is the kind of sequence that, though not unique to Dickens, carries such a strong visual resonance that commentators from Eisenstein onward have found something of a cinematic sensibility in his prose.[5]

In addition to the point of view shots, the plot and editing of Dirty Pretty Things creates a structure in which the viewer is encouraged to not only identify with the characters, but to root for them even when they are breaking a law. When immigration officials pound on the door of Senay’s apartment, a sequence ensues in which Okwe must quickly escape while covering up all evidence of his presence, since it is illegal for him to stay there. We see Senay and Okwe scrambling to hide his things then, as Okwe disappears behind a door, the officials burst in pushing Senay back toward the camera — putting us directly in her threatened position. After a long and suspenseful scene showing the officials rooting around the apartment, we are given (much to our relief) a shot of Okwe successfully making his escape out a window and into the street. Later, the officials show up at the hotel to try to catch Senay working there illegally. Okwe alerts the Russian doorman (yet another sympathetic immigrant character) and sends him to intercept Senay before she arrives. In a classical use of cross-cutting, the editing rapidly alternates between shots of Okwe sitting at the desk (trying to disguise his enormous anxiety), the immigration officials interrogating workers as they arrive, and then finally the doorman reaching Senay and rescuing her a split second before she enters. During the last 75 seconds of this sequence, there are six cuts to close-ups of Okwe, again placing him in the dominant and most sympathetic position.

Of course there is a larger thematic purpose to creating this sense of identification with characters traditionally marginalized or objectified by mainstream cinema — which brings us back to the kidney. At the beginning of the film Okwe discovers a human heart clogging a toilet in the hotel, leading him to undertake an investigation of this obvious crime — which he can’t take to the authorities because of his illegal status. He eventually uncovers an underground market fueled by people desperate enough to sacrifice a part of their body for a new and “legal” identity. When Senior Juan (Sergi Lopez), the proprietor of the hotel and impresario of the organ-for-passport trade, discovers that Okwe is a doctor he attempts to bribe, then blackmail him into performing these illegal kidney operations. Senay herself considers selling one of her kidneys for a forged passport, lured by Senior Juan’s promise that it can transform her into whatever she wants to b — Spanish, Greek, Italian– and (with the money she’ll earn) take her wherever she wants to go. This trade in organs serves as a — literally — visceral symbol of the entire economic system that seems to drive all of the characters, willingly or not. Thus the humorous and fairly innocuous trading of identities at the cab office that opens the movie (“Today you are Mohammed”) also operates on a much grander scale of sinister and highly dangerous exchanges.

The kidney also resonates with the theme of invisibility that permeates the film. Like the central characters of the film, the kidney — however vital — is an organ we do not see, at least not on the surface. Passing someone in the street we don’t know if they have one kidney or two, or if they might have received an illegal kidney in an underground operation. The secret lives of these organs runs parallel with the secret lives of the immigrant service workers whose complex inner lives remain cloaked and invisible by their social position. Further, these workers provide an equally vital function within the economic anatomy of the city. The larger point of the film, then, is not to simply reveal that London is now a patchwork of international neighborhoods, each with its own distinct markets, food, language, and culture. Far from remaining tucked away in their neighborhoods, the inhabitants of this new London are fully integrated into the economic life of the city, providing manufacturing, transportation, and cleaning — especially, like the kidney, those functions that dispose of waste that others don’t want to see or experience. Their invisibility is not a result of where they live, but of their class position in a service economy designed to elide the humanity of those who provide services — to the point where their very organs become items of exchange.

The invisibility of these characters can, at times, be turned to their advantage. When Okwe steals the medical supplies, he disguises himself as a janitor because in that role — even in this crowded, busy hospital — no one will pay the least attention to him as he mops up the pharmacy and pockets what he needs. In another scene in the hospital, Guo Yi provides him with a fake worker’s identity card; when Okwe raises his eyebrows at the picture, Guo Yi replies “black is black.” What the film as a whole says, even more broadly, is that a service worker is a service worker, whether the service provided is cleaning, sewing, or even sex — yet another way of selling bodily parts and functions. Juliet recognizes that as a sex worker she belongs to the same category as the invisible immigrants despite the fact that she is the only major character who is a native Londoner: at one point, responding to a question, she replies, “How should I know? I don’t exist, do I?”

Though the tone of Juliet’s remark is humorous, underneath it lies the dehumanizing horror of a loss of existence, or an existence that in the case of the immigrants is reduced to the surveillance of an impersonal state authority. Each morning the workers who clean the hotel, including Senay, must stare for a moment at a security camera as they arrive so that their images can be stored in a vast archive of videotapes available to the management or other authorities. This cold technological ritual is performed because no human being at the hotel — certainly not the customers — could possibly be expected to remember, let alone describe, the invisible humans who keep the hotel clean and functioning. This is what Okwe means at the end by saying “we are the people you do not see” — they are present, but ignored or seen through. This results not in mere anonymity, but an obliteration of these people’s existence — meaning the desperate hunt for passports and identity cards takes on a highly symbolic function. Denied an identity despite their vital labor, the immigrants seek acknowledgment of existence that, if in an abstract bureaucratic document, gives them legitimacy within the system.

As mentioned we, the audience of the film, do see, absorb, and even identify with the lives of these characters –legitimate or not — as we are taken with them through the literal and figurative mazes of the city. This is another sense in which Dirty Pretty Things participates in one of the great projects of cinema and the nineteenth-century realist novel exemplified by Dickens. As film theorist Sigrid Kracauer argued, the camera ideally functions not simply to record things (as, say, the impersonal security camera in the hotel) but to reveal things, including the “transient” and the “blind spots of the mind.” Even such highly familiar things as, in this instance, the immigrant laborers of London (or, indeed, the city itself), can be seen fresh and new through the special attention the camera provides; the film grants them, in short, the denied existence they seek in identity cards or passports. Further, Kracauer suggests that the film apparatus can reveal “invisible interrelationships between objects.”[6] With this in mind, another of the film’s most overt metaphors comes when Senay informs Okwe that he can’t run the water in the kitchen without cutting it off in the bathroom: “Everything here,” she says, “is connected to everything else.” What is true of this apartment is true of all of London. This reminds us that the concrete locations and objects so carefully depicted in Dirty Pretty Things serve as a vehicle to make visible much less tangible things: the hidden connections of the global, post-industrial economy in which one’s work, one’s identity, one’s body, even one’s internal organs might become items of exchange in a borderless and unregulated network of trade. Here one thinks again of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, in which the phony investment schemes of Merdle, when exposed, cause an economic crash that hits everyone from the highest of society to the poor renters of Bleeding Heart Yard, revealing the invisible financial ties of a modern metropolis.

Frears’ desire to find parts of London that were not “in every other film” pays homage to a model established by Dickens’ compulsive wanderings of the city, reported with exquisite detail in his essays and fiction. Both authors assert that what we know or think we know is not nearly as interesting or important as the unknown, thus they expose the hidden nooks and crooks of an ever-changing metropolis. If part of Dickens’ project was to uncover the sudden creation of a city from a town, Frears also exposes a new city enmeshed in a complicated web of international social and economic networks that appear on no map and have no guide — he says that the “film is about London in the last ten years.” While the film is much more compressed than a novel, it strives for the same sense of comprehensive social realism in its urban setting. Frears’ camera often lingers on the immigrant neighborhoods and the interesting people who inhabit them, suggesting, if not fully exploring, the depth of the lives in these areas. Who is the proprietor of the middle-eastern café that Okwe frequents to pick up the herbal stimulant he chews to keep awake around the clock? Why has the Somalian that Okwe treats for the botched operation sacrificed a kidney and nearly his life so he can be, in the words of his wife, “English now”? These moments suggest multiple layers of narrative beneath the dominant plot, giving a depth of detail to the film beyond the concerns of the main characters. And even within all the grim transactions depicted throughout, as in Dickens Frears finds room for humor through characters like the smart-talking Juliet and the blustery Russian doorman who works at Okwe’s hotel. In an interview, he comments that the jokes in Dirty Pretty Things are “a way of making the film more human—and making people enjoy and understand what you are trying to say. The alternative would be to give lectures, which would be appalling.”[7]

Thematically, Dickens and Frears are very much kindred spirits who share not merely a curiosity about the invisible underworld of London, but who both are driven by a passionate anger about the injustices revealed by uncovering it. When Senay has to leave her job at the hotel, she takes up work in a sweatshop tucked away down a dank alleyway in Dalston, which Frears describes as “like something out of Oliver Twist” — and the humiliation she suffers there from her lecherous boss is depicted with the same unblinking frankness as Dickens’ exposure of child abuse and neglect. At times the villains in Dirty Pretty Things border on cartoonish and heroes like Okwe and Senay, for all their suffering, are almost too good to be true. But these characters operate as archetypes without sacrificing their humanity; they function to reveal the invisible links of a social and moral network that can most powerfully be grasped in human terms. Just as Dickens could show how, say, Jo and Lady Deadlock in Bleak House were not only connected but bound together in a death grip by the hypocritical injustices of the state and its economy (both social and financial), so Frears constructs links between the poor immigrants and the larger social and economic network they enable.

The transfer of a kidney from an impoverished, illegal Somalian to some wealthy recipient is of course the most obvious example, but on a much less dramatic (and thus even more telling) level, these connections are revealed in subtle, unspoken ways in other scenes, such as a short shot of Okwe and a bored, oblivious businessman in the backseat of his cab (who may also hire Juliet later); or in general between the lives and status of those who provide services and those who are served. In making points like this, plot of the film, as in Dickens’ novels, relies on a fair degree of melodrama and coincidence. But Dickens and Frears use their fiction to expose a larger fiction maintained by the social order that there are no connection between these realms; the fiction that it would be unthinkable for Lady Deadlock to be aware of Jo’s existence let alone possibly have reason to seek him out or for the daughter of a rich businessman to walk around with the kidney of a woman who sewed her dress in a sweatshop. Surely, Dickens and Frears assert through their stories, the system that props this fiction up and allows it to exist must not, cannot be sustained.

In his seminal essay, Eisenstein identifies specific “cinematic” qualities of Dickens’ fiction, including dissolves, parallel action, and montage. Showing how “the craft of cinema in general” adopted these techniques, Eisenstein argues that the novel as exemplified in Dickens and the film as exemplified in Griffith are linked not just through a similarity in subject matter, but in the very formal devices that they employ. Further, he sees them as serving the same social function:

“What were Dickens’ novels, in their time?
“There is one answer: the same as cinema is now…
“They make the reader [viewer] experience the same passions, making the same appeal to the good, the sentimental; like film they made him shudder at vice, and provide the same escape from the…everyday into something unaccustomed, unusual, and fantastic. And at the same time it appears as nothing other than the everyday.” (437)

While this passage suggests a slightly patronizing attitude toward an enthralled audience, Eisenstein profoundly believed in the possibility that the art of film could teach, could inspire, could lead to real change. Dirty Pretty Things, through its plot, its themes, and its insistence on viewing the world through its “invisible” characters, firmly places Frears and the 21st century cinema in this tradition. When Okwe discovers the illegal organ trade, he goes in despair to visit Guo Yi, bewildered that a dangerous underground market like this would thrive in this metropolitan, “first world” country. Guo Yi is astonished at Okwe’s naiveté: “Did you think it didn’t happen here,” he asks, “just because the Queen doesn’t approve?” Like Dickens, Frears makes us see and feel that “it” does indeed happen here; to see is to know, and to know, I think both Dickens and Frears would hold, enters us into the obligation to act. Through its plot and its formal techniques, Frears shows that the twenty first-century cinema can tell a compelling story and still play a vital social function. To reveal the invisible London not only changes the way we see the world, it changes our responsibilities in it.


[1] Dirty Pretty Things. Dir. Stephen Frears. Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okendo. 2002. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2003. All quotes from Frears are from the Feature Commentary track of this DVD unless otherwise noted.

[2] Sergei Eisenstein, “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Today,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Sixth Edition, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (London: Oxford UP, 2004), 436-444.

[3] Robert Stam and Roberta Spense, “Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Sixth Edition, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (London: Oxford UP, 2004), 880.

[4] Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit. (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), 109.

[5] For an intriguing recent example see Grahame Smith, Dickens and the Dream of Cinema (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003). See especially chapter 9, “Language and Form.”

[6] Sigrid Kracauer, “The Establishment of Physical Existence,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Sixth Edition, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (London: Oxford UP, 2004). See the section on “Blind Spots of the Mind,” 309-311.

[7] Cynthia Lucia, “The Complexities of Cultural Change: An Interview with Stephen Frears,” Cineaste, vol. XXVIII No. 4 (2003), 11.

To Cite This Article:

Ted Hovet, ‘The Invisible London of Dirty Pretty Things; or Dickens, Frears, and Film Today’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access]