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(FILM ONLY REVIEW)
I find it surprising that 'My Beautiful Laundrette' released in 1985 has become largely forgotten when one talks about recent British cinema and indeed many people reading this review will probably have never heard of it and yet at the time it was an important film. In many ways it set a trend in British cinema that led to resurgence in British films on an international stage. This film led the way for future British international successes with films like 'The Queen' today.
Although nominated for an Oscar (Best Screenplay) and a couple of BAFTAs (Best Screenplay and Best Actor, Saeed Jaffrey) the film was an unlikely candidate. It was made using money from the relatively new Channel 4. It was directed by the then leading light of 'New Wave' British Cinema Stephen Frears (who also directed 'The Queen'), the screenwriter was a young and relatively unknown Hanif Kureishi and it starred a young and relatively unknown Daniel Day Lewis.
Long before 'East is East'(1999) or 'Bend It Like Beckham'(2002), 'My Beautiful Laundrette' tried paint a different picture of British Asian life than the accepted version at the time. Although a comedy drama it deals with some contentious issues, interracial love, homosexuality and racism and despite being very much of its time (you can't avoid the horrible 80's synth-pop of the soundtrack) it still has the power to shock today. Set in the Thatcher's greed obsessed 80's, the film tries to look at how these momentous changes in British society were affecting minority groups and their culture. It also highlighted hypocrisies in those cultures and wasn't accepted very warmly by the whole of the Asian community on its release.
Omar a young Asian man is being put under pressure by his father Papa to return to university and get a degree, however channelling the mood of the times Omar is more interested in making money. He thus agrees with his businessman uncle Nasser to take over a set of failing Laundromats in the hope of regenerating the business and make his fortune. To help him he gets together with a school friend Johnny. Soon previously repressed attraction comes to the fore and an interracial gay love affair begins one that has to be kept hidden from both sides of the community.
Frears and Kureishi use the characters and story as a microcosm of what was happening generally in mid 80's Britain but from an Asian perspective. The Asian community was beginning to change, some like Omar and his uncle Nasser were embracing the new spirit of entrepreneurship to the detriment of the more traditional Asian values held by people like Papa. Omar was typical of many young Asian brought up in a strict family environment with many expectations on his shoulders, to marry a suitable Asian girl to achieve educationally and to go into a profession. Unfortunately for Omar's family Omar was not that way inclined. In previous generations he might simply have conformed and abided by his parents wishes but now with the prevailing political climate Omar was lured by the possibility of making money. His sexuality might also in a different time have been hidden away but he at least feel confident enough to admit his homosexuality, at least to himself.
The film also dealt with issues of racism as we find out about Johnny's skinhead pals but this is surprisingly only touched upon in passing and the more serious issues of race violence a big problem at the time were only hinted at.
Despite the fact that this is a low budget film compared to the Hollywood blockbusters of the 80's even on such a small scale the film shows its class. The performance are universally good with such veteran Asian actors as Saeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth often stealing the scenes as the two opposites of the older generation of the Asian community. Rita Wolf is also great as Nasser precocious daughter who feels stifled by the constraints of the Asian community and makes a hilarious gesture of rebellion in one memorable scene.
The hypocrisy of some aspects of the British Asian community is exposed in the character of Nasser. He is a successful businessman managing to adapt perfectly to the 'survival of the fittest' approach to the economy in Thatcher's Britain and at the same time he is a pillar of the community showing the outwards signs of tradition and family values exasperated by the liberalism that British culture seems to have infected young Asians. Yet at the same time his high morals don't stop him from having a longstanding English mistress. On the other hand Papa is really the embodiment of true traditional values, he is appalled that his son would forgo the chance of getting a degree and become an intellectual leader of the community. He imagined Omar standing up for traditional values and opposing the capitalist corruption around him instead in order to make quick money Omar is prepared to 'wash other people's knickers'. Papa doesn't understand the changes that the political climate has brought and feels increasingly out of step with the more integrated minded Asian like Nasser.
Twenty years on one might have hoped that the problems of multiculturalism racism and racial integration might have been to a large extent solved but unfortunately these issue are just as contentious now if not more so than they were then and in this regard this film still has important points to make about modern Britain.
This is a brave film in taking on the stereotypes of Asian culture and showing a different side to it and also expressing the confusion and frustration that was felt by a younger generation of Asians. The central and positive portrayal of an interracial gay relationship was also out of step with the media and government attacks on the gay community at the time. Tabloid slogans proclaiming a 'gay plague' to describe AIDS was still ringing in people's ears and although the Tory governments anti gay legislation known as section 28 was still two years away the seeds of gay discrimination were already being sowed by the right wing press and right wing politicians. If this were an American film doubtless the central gay characters would not have been treated so sympathetically or at least would've requited killing off towards the end of the film.
'My Beautiful Laundrette' as much to recommend it but however it does also have some flaws. Even taking into account that is a comedy drama it does have pretentious of being a gritty accurate portrayal of 80's Britain, unfortunately for those who grew up and remember that time the film is not gritty and grimy enough; for every yuppie driving a Porsche snorting coke there were many more people sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets and the film doesn't quite convey the inequalities that were so much more apparent in society then than they are today.
However the most apparent flaw in the film is the central performance of Gordon Warnecke as Omar. Warnecke is not the greatest of actors and his recent slide into adverts and Eastenders was predictable on seeing his performance in this film. Unfortunately having to act next to someone of Day Lewis' talent simply highlighted his deficiencies even more. Warneke however does have a certain amount of schoolboy charm and this along with the excellent writing just about saves the day.
CAST AND TECHNICAL DETAILS
Saeed Jaffrey ... Nasser
Roshan Seth ... Papa
Daniel Day-Lewis ... Johnny (as Daniel Day Lewis)
Gordon Warnecke ... Omar
Shirley Anne Field ... Rachel
Rita Wolf ... Tania
Derrick Branche ... Salim
On DVD the runtime is 97 min and it carries a UK: 15 certificate primarily for its mild gay sexual content.
'My Beautiful Laundrette' can be bought from Amazon for just £3.99 (+p&p) at the time this review was written and is a bargain.
© Mauri 2007
In case you'd forgotten, My Beautiful Laundrette will remind you of those mid-80s days when Thatcherism ruled the earth (or so it seemed) and money was king. Stephen Frears' low-budget realisation of Hanif Kureishi's subversively critical play captures the contradictions of that time in a way that's as fresh today as when it was new. Omar's wheeler-dealer uncle, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), sums it up when he says, "In this damn country, which we hate and love, you can get anything you want". He sets up Omar (Gordon Warnecke) with a rundown laundrette and the instruction to make it a success, which Omar temporarily does, with the help of his childhood friend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis). When the film first came out, it was the gay content that dominated the column inches, whereas now it seems a sensitive and multi-faceted summation of its decade, exploring social, ethnic and sexual issues and contradictions. Bringing together two such different characters as Omar--Asian, ambitious, for whom success is defined by wealth--and former childhood friend Johnny--white trash, ex-National Front--was inspired. Watching their friendship develop into love, and the ensuing bitterness and misunderstanding that they suffer from friends and family is very poignant. All the lead roles are well taken, the contradictory character of Nasser in particular. By turns, funny, touching and anger-inducing, this is a movie that wears its age lightly and its era proudly. On the DVD: the picture is in 4:3 ratio with a Dolby Digital soundtrack. There's an original trailer and filmographies of the four main characters, with an additional biography for Day-Lewis. --Harriet Smith