MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985)

  • Director: Stephen Frears
  • Writer: Hanif Kureishi
  • Starring: Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day-Lewis, Saeed Jeffrey, Roshan Seth, Derrick Branche, Rita Wolf, and Shirley Anne Field
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

My Beautiful Laundrette was originally meant to be a small TV movie for Channel 4 in the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, which is why it looks and sometimes feels like a contemporary episode of Doctor Who without the rubber-suited monsters. But it made such an impression in a showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival that it received a theatrical release with modest success and even an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. Today it is usually considered notable as the first starring role for Daniel Day-Lewis, who went on to win more Best Actor Oscars than anyone else, along with the first feature directing effort by Stephen Frears, who has made a long series of well-made British character pieces ever since. What I found perhaps more interesting is that this is basically a romance between two LGBT characters that’s not really ABOUT the fact that it’s between two LGBT characters. The other characters certainly would not approve if they found out, we can assume, but the only one that figures it out doesn’t seem particularly to mind, and there’s no big scene where they’re either accepted or rejected. If anything, it’s more about the fact that one is Pakistani and one isn’t than it is about their particular sexuality. It felt, somehow, like such a relief.

Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a son of Pakistani immigrants in 1980s South London. He is less crushed by the expectations of his family than hemmed in by them. He is ambitious and not particularly concerned about how he gets where he’s going. His father (Roshan Seth) seems despondent (if we hear what happened to Omar’s mother, I missed it), gets lines like, “the working class of this country never fails to disappoint me,” and is only interested in Omar “reading at college.” But Omar wants to open a business and make money, and turns to his sketchy Uncle (Saeed Jeffrey), who is cheating with Omar’s aunt with an upper-class English lady (Shirley Anne Field) and says he left Pakistan because “that country was sodomized by religion, and it was starting to get in the way of making money.”

Omar then happens to run into his childhood friend Johnny (Day-Lewis) on the street, and decides to help him out by cutting him in on his business. Johnny has been squatting in empty apartments while hanging out as a particular sort of idle lower-class English thug, but decides he’s ready to turn the page in his life. The movie slowly tells us that the relationship between Omar and Johnny is more than friendship, but this is never treated as a big reveal. What is treated as more of a reveal is why they hadn’t spoken in years (Omar and his father saw Johnny marching in an anti-immigrant parade). Omar’s Uncle hands him a “laundrette” (apparently this is what British people call laundromats?) which he views as a money suck, but Omar and Johnny fix up the place in full 80s neon fashion and it is a big financial success, to everyone’s surprise. However, the place’s success does not provide the escape from their respective backgrounds that Omar and Johnny are hoping for.

When I say it feels like 1980s British TV, I’m not just making a comment about the budget. The performances are perfectly fine (having seen Day-Lewis in lots of stuff, I was more surprised by Warnecke, who really comes off as fun and charismatic in a way that none of the older people in his life have any idea what to do with), but are presented in a way that seems more meant to showcase the writing than anything else. There are only a few moments that aren’t shot in a very methodical over-the-shoulder, over-the-shoulder, two-shot formula, and the characters always wait for each other to finish speaking before reading the next line. However, both the writing and acting are of such a high level that once I got used to the movie’s rhythms I found it perfectly engrossing.

I found My Beautiful Laundrette primarily interesting from the perspective of providing this window into a time, place, and specific culture I haven’t spent so much time in before. This is Margaret Thatcher-era Britain from very specific perspectives, not just from people down-and-out economically but also from people who see the business-friendly climate as an opportunity. Johnny has detailed conversations with his old friends in which they complain that he no longer supports the football (soccer) team Crystal Palace. He announces to them that he is now a fan of a rival team (Millwall), and they look at him like he’s from Mars. It is clear that this conversation is standing in for other things they are not in touch with their emotions enough to talk about.

One other character that really gave the movie added dimension for me was Tania (Rita Wolf), who I think is Omar’s cousin but is also considered an acceptable romantic partner for him by everyone involved. She is of the same generation as Omar and Johnny, but her solution is simply to get away. When we first meet her, she is bluntly trying to seduce Omar, including flashing him her breasts through a window as he meets with his uncle and other members of the Pakistani business community. It seems like this is more likely to be out of boredom than out of any particular feelings she has for Omar. She is the only character in the movie who seems to figure out what’s actually going on with Omar and Johnny (though again, there’s no big scene where anyone talks about this). When Omar drunkenly proposed to her after the laundrette’s big opening, she says that she’ll accept if he helps her raise the money to run away together. But he doesn’t want to leave, and neither does Johnny when she announces near the end of the movie that she’s leaving on her own and says he can come with her if he wants. He says he can’t leave Omar, asking, “Have you ever touched him?” She does not reply but seems to understand.

One of the big problems with movies about LGBT romances is, because they have been outside of society for so long, they have tended to end tragically, to the point that this is sometimes seen as a negative cliché these days. That’s why I think I should probably mention that, yes, Omar and Johnny end up together, and seem happy. The last shot of the movie is them with their shirts off (they’re cleaning up after they fought off a violent attack from Johnny’s old friends), playfully splashing water from the sink on each other. It’s the sort of happy ending straight couples tend to get without a second thought.

Though this movie is from 1985, it did strike me in some was as very relevant to issues many of us may be experiencing now. Omar’s father refuses to have Johnny in his home, and when he meets him at the laundrette responds point blank to “Are you still feeling sick?” with “Are you still a fascist?” We get the impression, though Johnny doesn’t have the words to quite express this, that he went along with the anti-immigrant rhetoric not out of some deep conviction but because all of his friends were doing it at the time. When confronted by Omar, Johnny says he knows he can’t ever sufficiently apologize for his past, only change the way he acts going forward. Today, many of us are likely dealing with people in our lives, family members or friends, who support ideas and movements that not only go against our beliefs, but actively argue against our own physical safety. There is no way to forgive those beliefs, but maybe through their actions at least some of the people that hold them can be reconciled with (if not forgiven), but only if they really do their own soul searching first.

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