Low-key thrills and dark humor infuse Frears’ unconventional film with depth and honest vigor
The man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian, an illegal immigrant in contemporary London, a cab driver by day and a hotel porter by night, and when we first meet him he’s telling two prospective passengers he’s there to aid those whom “the system” has failed.
Back home, he’s a physician, and so his duties at the cab company include backroom ministrations to colleagues who’ve got the clap. He works around the clock, with help from an herbal stimulant and making only fitful attempts to get some sleep on the couch he rents from fellow Baltic Hotel employee Senay (Audrey Tautou of Amélie fame), a Turkish refugee, also illegal, who comes to work just as the Nigerian, whose name is Okwe, is finishing his shift.
The teasing possibility of romance between Okwe and Senay arises soon enough, but complications ensue when immigration agents get after her and she retreats to a job in a sweatshop. But the biggest complications come from the hotel’s manager, Juan (Sergio Lopez), a.k.a. “Senor Sneaky.” The Machiavellian Juan, as Okwe soon discovers, is doing a brisk business on the side in the black market for organ transplants, which he extracts from illegal immigrants in trade for forged passports and identity papers.
In the hands of Frears and company, this tale (adroitly scripted by Steven Knight) becomes a quietly compelling combination of social-protest drama and low-key thriller, leavened and deepened by glimmers of dark-humored multi-cultural comedy. Like Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette, it has a surprising narrative abundance, and like his film The Grifters, it approaches genre conventions at an oblique angle that makes for a new and honest vigor in the seemingly familiar forms.
Ejiofor and Lopez both deliver superbly understated performances, the one as a trickster hero for the age of globalization and trans-national corruption, and the other as a beguiling demon moved to cheerful confidence by the pervasiveness of that corruption.
Lopez also contributes to the steady undercurrent of wry picaresque humor, but the prime contributors in that respect are a trio of memorable supporting performances—Zlatko Buric as the raucous Russian doorman at the Baltic Hotel, Sophie Okonedo as the irrepressible hooker Juliette, and Benedict Wong as the astutely wisecracking attendant of a basement crematorium.