Home Video Hovel: My Beautiful Laundrette, by David Bax
When I first saw Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette back in high school, I was intrigued and puzzled as to what to expect. On the one hand, I knew that it was going to be a gritty tale that included London punk rockers. On the other hand, it was a romance with a decidedly flowery title. As it would turn out, the film is both of those things and plenty more. Frears’ achievement is pulling it all together in a way that works.
Gordon Warnecke stars as Omar, a young British Pakistani man whose uncle (Saeed Jaffrey), a successful entrepreneur, puts Omar in charge of one of his establishments, a somewhat rundown laundromat (or laundrette, I guess). The love story begins, as so many do, when Omar and other Pakistanis are set on by a group of racist, nationalistic, right-wing punks and skinheads. One of them, it turns out, is Omar’s school chum, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis); the film implies that an romantic relationship existed at that time. Soon, Johnny is turning his back on his new friends and rekindling things with Omar.
So, to count, we’ve got a story that’s about immigrants, a story that’s about the ascendant skinhead/white supremacist movement in England and, to top it all off, a story of two men who have to hide their love from their homophobic friends and family. Oh, also, they are an interracial couple. It’s not just that these disparate elements all work; it’s that they don’t even seem disparate. We see political ideals rub up against commercial and capitalistic realities both within the Pakistani community and in that community’s relation to the outside world. Omar, in separate scenes, speaks both to his father and his uncle while, in each case, the older man is laying on a bed. His leftist father (Roshan Seth) is ill and spends what little energy he has condemning his business-minded brother. Omar’s uncle, though, relaxes on silk sheets while being pampered by women.These same contrasts in economic success define the tensions between the Pakistanis and the skinheads. Salim (Derrick Branche), a trafficker of illegal narcotics, decries the punks for not having jobs; meanwhile, the whole skinhead movement is propped up on the fallacy that it’s because of the immigrants that the young, white men are out of jobs in the first place.
Frears manages to cover all of this in a mere 98 minutes while still making a lovely romance film. And it truly is lovely. That first high school viewing mentioned above was on a VHS tape on the generation-old television in my bedroom. So seeing cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s warm, tactile tones on this new Blu-ray was a treat.
Though not perfect (Warnecke pales in his scenes with Day-Lewis; it’s weird how quickly Johnny is forgiven for his very recent racist past), My Beautiful Laundrette is a terrific love story that also happens to be a snapshot of mid-1980s workaday London.
Special features include a conversation between Frears and producer Colin MacCabe, interviews with writer Hanif Kureishi, producers Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe, and Stapleton, as well as an essay by Graham Fuller.