Watched: 4 February
Stephen Frears’ drama looks at the lives of immigrant Londoners, with characters from a number of different backgrounds finding some common ground with one another as co-workers within the Baltic Hotel (actually Whitehall Court in Westminster). The plot is concerned with illegal organ harvesting – a trade that’s actually being carried out within the hotel itself – as well as more general exploitation of the characters, and while those are interesting topics it does seem to take rather a lot of attention away from the home lives of characters such as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Nigerian cabbie/desk operator Okwe and Audrey Tautou’s Turkish cleaner Senay, although the roundabout point being made is that these people are working so hard to stay afloat in an expensive city (or to send money to family members in the countries they have left behind) that any leisure time is simply spent catching up on sleep. However, Frears fails to find much time to properly explore Senay and Okwe’s (developing, platonic) love for one another, which is a shame as it’s an intriguing thread and the two leads are on good form, the make-up and costume department having done a stellar job in terms of ‘normalising’ two strikingly good-looking actors.
Frears sets Sergi López’s hotel manager Juan up as the villain of the piece – and anyone who has seen Pan’s Labyrinth knows how much he relishes such roles – but the character is a one-dimensional, hissable bad guy where others, such as Benedict Wong’s mortuary employee and Sophie Okonedo’s prostitute (this is a film that very much defines characters by their jobs) seem far more realistic. I thought occasionally of the London night-time world of Mona Lisa because of these characters and the things that some of them are up to, even though the city changed immeasurably in the years in-between the two films; the two do share a certain seediness, though.
Director Frears and screenwriter Steven Knight are both white, born and raised in England and (I assume) were reasonably affluent at the time of making this, given their earlier career successes; perhaps not. Anyway, I don’t have any objection to people making films about places, situations or characters with backgrounds that they may not be immediately familiar with, but perhaps if a similar film were being made today we might benefit from the voice of someone who had actually lived and worked in London having moved to the city from another country. (***)