It's glib to describe Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things as My Beautiful Laundrette meets The Grifters, but the comparison is unavoidable. The story of hard-working immigrants who unwittingly become involved in a gruesome scam, the film captures the tribulations of foreigners striving for a better life in their adopted country, as well as the casual evil that patiently waits to corrupt them.

Dirty Pretty Things is also a bittersweet love story of two people who struggle to overcome their seclusion. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian doctor living illegally in London, works two jobs to make ends meet. During the day he chews betel to stay awake at the wheel of his minicab. At night he mans the front desk of a modest hotel in one of the city's less glamorous neighborhoods. His friend Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turk who dreams of moving on to New York, labors as a chambermaid at the same hotel, a violation of her status as a political refugee. Okwe and Senay are attracted to each other, and at one point must share a small apartment, but they are kept apart by their different religions, customs and languages, not to mention their sweatshop hours.

Then a chance discovery changes everything. Trying to unclog a stopped toilet in the room used by the resident prostitute (Sophie Okonedo), Okwe finds a human heart lodged at the bottom of the bowl. When he presents the specimen to Sneaky (Sergi Lžpez), the hotel manager, he learns that an unthinkable trade is being practiced on his watch. What's more, Sneaky makes Okwe an offer he thinks he can't refuse: a visa in exchange for his medical skill. Hounded by IND agents, desperate for cash, yet horrified by the prospect of trafficking in human flesh, Okwe must decide whether he can bear to pay the price of asylum--a choice made more difficult by the fact that Senay is willingly to put her own life on the line for a ticket to the United States.

Produced from a script by Steven Knight, a novelist and television writer who helped create 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,' Dirty Pretty Things is a rare accomplishment: Frears manages to sustain the suspense required of an engaging thriller while drawing a believable portrait of real people we care about. To be sure, the premise of the film, based on stories and legends involving organ trafficking, requires viewers to strenuously suspend their disbelief. At the same time, the movie presents a convincing portrait of people living on the margins of society, struggling to keep their dignity, coping with their isolation, acquiescing to their exploitation.

As well as any working artist, Frears taps into the immigrant experience and multicultural vibe of international cities like London. (The cast of Dirty Pretty Things is as ethnically diverse as a U.N. subcommittee.) He and Knight can be accused of painting their protagonists with too noble a palette--Okwe and Senay are really too good to be true--but they succeed splendidly in framing a moving story inside a rousing yarn.

--Rex Roberts