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For the longest time I didn't have a favourite movie, but rather a movie trilogy, and that was The Lord of the Rings.
That all changed when I finally saw Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things several years ago—in 2016, to be exact, despite it being released way back in 2002. And do you want to know a secret? That was the only time I ever watched it.
It's not often we remember most of, if not an entire movie we'd only seen once in our lifetimes. Not to mention, we'd normally rewatch our favourites multiple times, right?
So how was Dirty Pretty Things able to keep itself deposited in my memory bank after four years, despite me having long moved on to many other movies I missed out on over the years?
That's simple: even though I wouldn't stop myself from eventually revisiting the film, I don't see the need to physically relive an experience or emotion that was cinematically presented to me when I already feel them playing themselves out in my mind. Why should I try reaffirming something I'm convinced of hitherto?
Even if I've never been an illegal immigrant who's had to carry out morally questionable deeds in order to ensure my own safety as well as others', this particular scenario felt real to me and I can imagine it may very well be a familiar face for many people who've lived through a similar situation at some point in their lives.
I don't know if I can consider Dirty Pretty Things a universally relatable narrative, but I'd say it's leastways pretty darn close. The story doesn't seem to be predicated on the lives of any real-life individuals in particular, but that doesn't mean it can't depict a social issue that prevails even today rather than contextualizing any one specific event in human history.
What's more, it does something that most other issue-oriented narratives ironically don't really do and definitely didn't do at the time, and that's humanizing the "good-aligned" characters.
Oftentimes when there's an oppressed-oppressor dynamic portrayed in media, real or not, or somewhere in between, the one's we're supposed to sympathize with are normally presented to us in droves from far away with little to no personality, motivation, or anything else that would make their struggles believable.
It's as if the writers are telling us, "Here's a bunch of people suffering. Okay, now you may proceed to feeling sorry," without giving us much of an inside look into their lives, what they're doing, and how they're feeling at any point whether it's because of or in spite of their misfortune.
Regardless of where someone is in their life, they can still have a sense of humour and nuanced points of view; they can still have dreams and aspirations; they can still have hobbies and interests; and they can most definitely be people with beating hearts we engage with on a regular basis and not just observe from behind a screen.
I think this is why stories like Art Spiegelman's Maus and Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful—both coincidentally about the Holocaust— appeal to me a great deal as well. Sure, one is an actual account that uses anthropomorphic animals in a graphic novel format, and the other uses comedy as well as an amalgam of accounts to tell its story, but none of that can ever delegitimize the points they're trying to make.
If anything, these characteristics can only enhance their validity. People who are or were wronged are not—and were not—just there for us to feel sorry for; they inspire us, revolutionize and help us take back storytelling as our own, and capture our support for continuing legacies of those who we can understand and connect with.
So aside from having a superb cast and Steven Knight's near-perfectly written script, Dirty Pretty Things thankfully manages to check the right boxes on a list that should be accessible at more film sets. The best part is, none of it has to be included explicitly; it could all be found in between the lines.