The 1985 British drama My Beautiful Laundrette marks a significant turning point in the careers of three major talents: writer Hanif Kureshi, director Stephen Frears and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood). All three have since gone on to win all sorts of awards and acclaim, but back in 1985, they were merely gifted young talents attempting to make their mark on the world. That's one of the most appealing things about the movie: it doesn't feel like a piece of “prestige” cinema (something that would be inevitable if the same three people were to collaborate on a project today), but like a youthful experiment.
The story the film offers is a busy, multi-layered affair that often feels like an entire season of television condensed into a single 98-minute feature. At the center of the film's narrative web is a young man named Omar (Gordon Warnecke, Doctor Who), the son of once-distinguished Pakistani-British journalist Hussein Ali (Roshan Seth, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Alas, Hussein's frustration with the world eventually grew so intense that he slipped into alcoholism, forcing Omar to stay home and serve as Hussein's caretaker. Feeling guilty about this development, Hussein persuades his brother-in-law Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey, A Passage to India) to give Omar a job.
Omar's new assignment is a difficult one: he's tasked with taking a run-down, outdated laundrette and turning it into a thriving business. The young man jumps into the task with enthusiasm, and soon recruits his old pal Johnny Burfoot (Day-Lewis) as his first employee. On the surface, it seems like a strange pairing: Johnny spends his days hanging out with a group of racist right-wing hoodlums, though he's far less violent than his savage pals (when we first meet him, he's hanging back and smoking a cigarette while his buddies verbally assault some of Omar's friends). However, it seems that Omar and Johnny were lovers once upon a time, and their mutual affection is strong enough to overcome their differences. In no time at all, they're back in each other's arms.
There's a striking frankness to the way My Beautiful Laundrette deals with homosexuality: this isn't a “gay film,” but merely a complicated slice-of-life drama that happens to include a romantic relationship between two men as one of its central components. Though it's acknowledged that Omar and Johnny have to be discreet about their relationship, their moments of intimacy are treated very casually (an approach that was more or less unheard of in 1985). Indeed, almost everything else in the movie is melodrama presented through a filter of naturalism, from Nasser's relationship with his mistress (Shirley Anne Field, Alfie) to the drug trafficking storyline (hey, they've got to raise the money to save the laundrette somehow!) to Hussein's alcoholism.
The whole ensemble is good, but it's easy to see why Day-Lewis was the breakout cast member of the bunch: even if you weren't watching the film with the benefit of hindsight, it would be immediately obvious that you were witnessing the birth of a superstar. Day-Lewis brings an quiet but undeniably potent charm to every scene he appears in, making an fairly unlikely character – a gay, sheepish, good-hearted quasi-fascist? - feel real and alive.
My Beautiful Laundrette is spinning a lot of plates – too many, if you ask me – but it's an appealing, good-hearted story about the sort of people who aren't often given starring roles in movies (I certainly can't think of a long list of films detailing life in the Pakistani-British community). The movie may be a little rough around the edges, and a handful of creative decisions don't quite work (the film's original score – co-written by Stanley Myers and a young Hans Zimmer – incorporates goofy “soap bubble” sounds), but this is largely an ambitious, touching little movie. It's worth a look.
My Beautiful Laundrette
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1985