Steve Knight's script suffers from just about everything that's wrong with melodrama: the hero is so virtuous he has no dimensions; the heroine is so wronged that you can identify with her only by nestling into the weakest parts of yourself, with the implication that the mousier the personality the more piquant the unrequited emotions; the movie strikes a tone of high moral outrage at the villain's actions but then expects us to cheer, in a perversion of the golden rule, when the hero does to him what we don't want to see done to the heroine (or ourselves). And though you may be quite sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and the sexual exploitation of women, and believe that such things as the kidney trade exist, the melodramatic narrative makes it all seem unreal. The problem is that it presents the situation as quintessential rather than extreme, and in order to get us riled gives us lead characters with the fewest options or the least resourcefulness.
Despite the interesting details of how immigrants patch together an existence in the city, and Frears's rightly valued economy and frankness in laying it out for us (aided by Chris Menges's cinematography and Mick Audsley's editing), the movie is just a left-liberal art-house version of the medical paranoia thriller Coma (1978), starring Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas, which at least is an entertainment without pretensions. Dirty Pretty Things is a world away from Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), from Hanif Kureishi's first-rate script, in which Omar (Gordon Warnecke), the young Pakistani protagonist trying to make it on the immigrant margins of London, not only grovels before his successful uncles to get what he wants but steals a shipment of drugs from them to peddle for his own profit as well. We don't require melodramatic justifications for his behavior to be able to identify with Omar, we can identify directly with his misconduct in pursuit of his small-scale dream of operating a "fabulous" laundrette with his punk boyfriend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his star-making performance). (Identifying with misconduct is not the same as admitting we'd do the same thing in the circumstances.) Even the romance between the boys has traces of vice: Omar orders Johnny around, leaves him hanging while he decides whether to give in to his family and marry his cousin, generally makes this racist National Front apostate feel his powerlessness. My Beautiful Laundrette is a stylized romantic comedy, and the most voluptuous English movie ever made, in which no nuance of human motivation or activity is airbrushed to make the picture pretty. (Before a date with Johnny, Omar clips his nose hairs onscreen.)
Okwe, by contrast, is a melodramatic hero driven into exile and falsely accused of having killed his wife (a Nigerian "Fugitive"). Actually, he's so virtuous and sensitive he accuses himself though he isn't guilty (she was killed by the government after he refused to cooperate with it). Luckily for the movie Ejiofor has a classically haunted man-of-sorrows movie-star face, like Richard Barthelmess's in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939). You can see the persistence of hope in Ejiofor's eyes weighed down by the rationally low expectations expressed on his brow, which he works like a violin bow. He does not, however, have the quality it takes to play a melodramatic stalwart and remain interesting. It's a good thing in part: he's not bland enough to be an all-purpose hero. There's too much irony in that brow, but the role becomes increasingly humorless and so his greatest asset is wasted.