Dir: Stephen Frears. UK. 2002. 98mins.

Stephen Frears' latest film doesn't just expose the rotten underbelly of London: it slices it wide open. By turns macabre (often stomach-churningly so), funny and tender, this elaborate tale of moonlighting and illegal organ transplants set among the city's invisible underclass of immigrant service workers shouldn't, by rights, hang together. Equally, making an English-language movie with an international cast that includes a Croat who lives in Denmark, a bankable French actress (Audrey Tautou) playing a Turk and a Catalan (Sergi Lopez) who speaks little English, should have been a recipe for a flat Euro-souffle. But although Frears' BBC homing instinct dulls the movie gloss more than once, the souffle rises. The film's topical theme and its provocative, visually arresting view of a hidden London should help UK distributor Buena Vista International roll this out wide on home ground early next year. Meanwhile the Frears-Tautou billing should garner healthy sales for Miramax elsewhere.

Based on a mid-1990s script by Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' co-creator Steven Knight, Dirty Pretty Things has an unlikely, rococo plot. Nigerian illegal immigrant Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) juggles two jobs: minicab driver and receptionist in a smart, but louche, hotel. He shares a flat with Senay (Audrey Tautou) a Turkish maid in the same hotel, who dreams of moving to New York, and who is secretly besotted with her flatmate. But a macabre discovery in one of the hotel bedrooms leads good-guy Okwe to discover that the hotel is the centre of an illegal organ transplant scam run by his unscrupulous boss Sneaky (a beaming, chubby-faced Sergi Lopez). Will Okwe, who trained as a doctor, be persuaded to take over from the hotel's current kidney butcher in order to save lives' Will the immigration services get Senay before she gets her man, or before another man gets her virginity' Will Sneaky get his come-uppance'

This potentially lame matinee-thriller story is saved by the vision and energy of its execution. Ejiofor, who has worked mainly in the theatre since his first big break in Amistad, brings real authority to Okwe, who has no illusions about the depths of human depravity, and yet is locked by his nature into being honourable and generous, especially with the vulnerable Senay. Despite an accent that takes a while to get used to, Audrey Tautou is convincing as the shy, doe-eyed chambermaid fighting to hold onto her dreams in the London stew. There are some lively character parts too, from a Chinese mortician to a Russian doorman to a Brixton hooker. The really striking thing about the characters, though, is that none of them - except for two immigration officers - are standard-issue white Brits: all are part of the immigrant sub-class that oils the wheels of the metropolis, and cleans up afterwards.

Full marks also go to cinematographer Chris Menges and production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski for creating a truly original cinematic London. This is a place of garish, neon-lit interiors and seedy backstairs entrances, of makeshift mini-cab companies nestling under bridges and cheap cafes decked out with day-glo tack.

Prod co: Celador Films
Co-prod: BBC Films
UK dist: Buena Vista Int'l
Int'l sales: Miramax Int'l
Prods: Tracey Seaward, Robert Jones
Exec prod: Paul Smith, Allon Reich, David M Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Teresa Moneo, Julie Goldstein
Scr: Steven Knight
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Prod des: Hugo Luczyc Wyhowski
Ed: Mick Audsley
Music: Nathan Larson
Main cast: Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric