The hall porter is sent upstairs to repair a blocked toilet, and finds the source of the trouble: A human heart, stuck in the pipes. He asks about the recent occupants of the room, but nobody seems to know anything, not even the helpful hooker who acts like an unofficial member of the staff. The porter, a Nigerian named Okwe, takes it up with his boss, Sneaky, and is advised to mind his own business.
This is a splendid opening for a thriller, but "Dirty Pretty Things" is more than a genre picture. It uses the secret and malevolent activities at the hotel as the engine to drive a story about a London of immigrants, some illegal, who do the city's dirty work. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a doctor in Nigeria, is here as a political exile, has a past that haunts him. He rents couch space in the tiny flat of a chambermaid named Senay (Audrey Tautou, from "Amelie"), who is from Turkey, and fled an arranged marriage. His best friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) presides over poker games at the mortuary where he works. His circle also includes the doorman Ivan (Zlatko Buric) and the hooker Juliette (Sophie Okonedo). These characters and the vile night manager Sneaky are the major characters in the story, immigrants all, while white Londoners exist only as customers or immigration officials.
Okwe works hard at two jobs. He drives a minicab during the day, works all night at the hotel, buys illegal herbs at a local cafe to keep himself more or less awake. He is aware that Senay likes him and would not object if he moved from her couch to her bed, but he must be true to a wife in Nigeria; his faithfulness becomes more poignant the more we learn about the wife ("It is an African story," he says simply).
The heart of the movie, directed by Stephen Frears, is in the lives of these people. How they are always alert to make a little money on the side (as when Okwe and Ivan supply their own cash-only room service sandwiches after the hotel kitchen closes). How they live in constant fear of immigration officials, who want to deport them, even though a modern Western economy could not function without these shadow workers. How there is a network of contact and support in this hidden world, whose residents come from so many places and speak so many languages that they stop keeping score and simply accept each other as citizens of the land of exile.