From the moment you see a human heart floating in a London Hotel in the opening shot of Dirty Pretty Things, you brace yourself for a relentless drama about the illegal and marginalized immigrants in England.
But director Stephen Frear's new film is not all that bleak.
In fact, it is an absorbing story filled with delicate humour and luminous performances, especially from newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor. Its suspenseful ending may seem a bit forced, but there is no denying that this is one of the better films seen in recent times.
For those who complain how mindless and repetitive most summer movies are, please watch Danny Boyle's piercing horror film 28 Days Later and Frear's taut Dirty Pretty Things.
Frears, who has made big budget flops such as the Julia Roberts starrer Mary Reilly, returns to the territory he knows best, a territory that he explored well in My Beautiful Laundrette (Daniel Day-Lewis, Roshan Seth, Saaed Jaffrey), about 18 years ago - chronicling the aspirations and misery of immigrants in England.
A big favourite at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Dirty Pretty Things is showing in half a dozen theatres in New York and Los Angeles. The screen count will go up gradually, each week adding a handful of new cities.
Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian exile with a mysterious past who cannot work as a doctor in England but takes up the job of a cab driver.
In the evenings, he works as a concierge in what, at first, looks like a respectable and legitimate hotel.
When he discovers a few shockingly dirty things at the hotel, the manager (Sergi Lopez) grandly declares: "Strangers come to the hotel in the night to do dirty things and in the morning we make things pretty again."
The gruesome discovery is not an isolated event.
Okwe's life becomes even more complicated when he uncovers the underground trade in organs carried out at the hotel in exchange for
He urgently wants the scam exposed but is also worried about his own immigration status.
Meanwhile, his friendship with a Turkish asylum seeker, Senay (Audrey Tautou) -- who is also working illegally at the same hotel -- adds to his dilemma.
The relationship between the two, seemingly platonic in the beginning, is one of the film's more arresting situations.
One of the film's most gut-churning moments takes place when Senay is forced to have sex with one of her new employers.
In the hands of a lesser director, the situation would have been exploitative and predictable.
But with the help of the luminous Tautou (Amelie) and the unflinching camera of photographer Chris Menges, Frears creates a horrendous scene that will haunt many viewers for long.
Many viewers might be surprised to witness Tautou display a wide variety of emotions. She brings out the vulnerability and strength of her character.
But Tautou has to contend with several other strong performances.
Newcomer Ejiofor offers a riveting performance mirroring the physical and emotional anguish of a man forced to lead a dual life.
At times, he goes overboard, but on the whole, here is a performance that needs to be saluted. As the sinister and greedy hotel manager Sergi Lopez is also excellent.
Screenplay by: Steve Knight
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, disturbing images and raw language
Released by: Miramax