Summer Raises Its IQ

Can films about hard subjects find an audience in the hot months? Depends on how good they are

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Such places existed, such depredations occurred, and, yes, they were terrible. But this is basically a women-in-prison movie with a liberal tinge. The camera's eyes nearly pop out in astonishment while reveling in the dramatically unedifying face-off of absolute innocence and absolute malice. Magdalene would have been a better film--at least, it could have been a good one--if it had shown the nuns, themselves the victims of a cruel, cloistered mind-set, as something more than horror-film sisters of Satan. (One literally carries a pitchfork.) Or is it too much to ask a committed filmmaker to offer sympathy for the devil?

It is not too much. For proof, see Dirty Pretty Things, an English film written by Steven Knight and directed by indie vet Stephen Frears. On its face, this could be called an expose of the inhuman condition. Illegal immigrants trade their organs for fake passports, and the dangerous operations are performed in a London hotel room. For people following a dream of solvency from the Third World to the First, everything must be bought, at the cost of one's honor. "I don't want to take your virginity," a sweatshop owner tells an employee, forcing her into oral sex. "I just want you to help me relax."

The movie clicks, however, because it doesn't italicize the atrocities; it knows not only that wickedness abounds but also that smart people can use it as well as be abused by it. Inside the sharp social commentary is an appealing love story between an African doctor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a Turkish maid (Amelie's Audrey Tautou). And as the hotel's night manager--the film's designated devil--Sergi Lopez is the most genial of miscreants. Committing each sin with a smile, he assures that the lives of his staff will remain an agony until ... "Until the world improves," the doctor's friend says.

Dirty Pretty Things can't cure the world's ills and doesn't try. It's a movie, not an international treaty. But its dour comic take on misery, and on the strategies people concoct to outsmart it, improves the world of summer films. And you don't have to leave your brain at the door.

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