My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, Daniel Day-Lewis
Synopsis: An ambitious Asian Briton and his white lover strive for success and hope, when they open up a glamorous laundromat.
It’s 1985, and Britain is slap-bang in the middle of Maggie Thatcher’s 11-year tenure as Britain’s Prime Minister, a tumultuous period when rampant capitalism was viewed by many as a positive direction for the country. Caring for his ailing father, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a somewhat aimless youth free of guile or malice, is impervious to the opportunities provided by Thatcher’s ideology until he’s presented with the opportunity to gorge upon the pie from which everyone seems to be feeding. His father (Roshan Seth – Gandhi), once an influential socialist journalist in India, asks Omar’s Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey – Gandhi), a successful local businessman, to give his nephew a job. Nasser, a family man with a number of small businesses and an accommodating mistress (Shirley-Anne Field – Peeping Tom, Alfie), runs his empire with his ruthless, amoral son, Salim (Derrick Branche), and initially sets Omar to work washing cars. Later, he gives him the opportunity to manage a run-down laundrette which has always proven to be something of a thorn in his side. After enlisting the aid of his childhood friend – and soon to be lover – Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis – A Room with a View, Stars and Bars), Omar hijacks some drugs from one of Salim’s smuggling operations to obtain the finance he needs to transform the seedy laundrette into a luxurious emporium. But while business at the laundrette booms, success, family pressures, and resentment from Johnny’s former friends, conspire to threaten their relationship.
Movies in which the characters function as symbols often end up over-simplifying complex issues or stretching narrative credibility in order to cater for all the ideas they wish to express. Refreshingly, Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette manages to negotiate the narrow path between these two extremes by creating realistic – if slightly exaggerated – characters in a believable milieu. Britain in the 1980s was a place where anything seemed possible and in which people believed that access to the path to happiness and fulfilment required bundles of cash. They bought into an illusion that came crashing down around them as the decade drew to a close, and even though Frears’ movie was made five years before the crash, Hanif Kureishi’s intelligent screenplay was prescient enough to identify at least some of the sociological implications of such an unsustainable situation.
While the characters and their arcs make for compelling viewing, My Beautiful Laundrette suffers from a weak performance from Gordon Warnecke, whose shortcomings as Omar are cruelly exposed by scenes shared with such accomplished, but largely unrecognised, actors as Saeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth, and the acknowledged talent of method actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s called upon to implant an incongruously perceptive sensitivity into a rough and laddish South London persona. The sexuality of Omar and Johnny is treated in a surprisingly matter-of-fact manner, and given no more emphasis in the plot than it would have been if Omar’s partner was a female (which was Kureishi’s original intention). And even rarer than the homosexuality of two of the leads’ is My Beautiful Laundrette’s frank treatment of the sexuality of Asians – as well as Omar’s homosexuality, there is a scene in which an Indian girl playfully exposes her breasts.
While the look of the movie might be dated, its observations on the relationship between the moneyed minority and those they employ, and the tensions that exist between the British male and his Asian (and now Eastern European) counterparts are as relevant now as they were in the 1980s. My Beautiful Laundrette is worth a look, even for those who might normally be put off by some of its content.
(Reviewed 15th January 2016)