Though it’s a seminal member of the 1980s-era British new wave, My Beautiful Laundrette also curiously resembles the sort of coming-of-age comedy, popular in the United States at the same time, which follows a smarmy upstart teen as he invests himself gleefully in the corruption of the adult world. Think Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or any number of other movies that uneasily grapple with capitalist entitlement, alternately satirizing and indulging it. This film’s resemblance to that unofficial American subgenre isn’t entirely incidental either, as director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi wrestle pointedly with Thatcherism, which intersected with the Reaganomics culture that seasoned those yuppie satires. Favoring a gutting of public services, skewed tax emphases, and corporate deregulation, Thatcherism yielded results that are arguably typical of conservative ideology: high-class flourishing at the expense of the lower class proletariat, who’re left underpaid (at best), over-taxed, adrift, and profoundly resentful of their limited opportunities. My Beautiful Laundrette is a moving, tonally elastic study of this environment’s socio-political ground floor.
Frears’s film is more ambitious and accomplished than any of its inadvertent American counterparts, however, its sensibility ultimately scanning as more simpatico with the cinema of Lindsay Anderson, and contemporarily with outraged, alienated films like Stranger than Paradise, Paris, Texas, and Repo Man, which are the disruptive Sid Vicious to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s complacent Huey Lewis. The narrative is built on a clever misdirection: One’s initially intended to believe that Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke), a poor South Londoner of Pakistani heritage with rich, ethically laissez-faire immigrant uncles, is the compass of My Beautiful Laundrette’s conscience. He is to an extent, but Omar is also understood to be a damaged conformer who quickly learns to rip off crooks, jump-start his laundry business (with an all-important, inherited financial safety net that’s denied traditional laborers), and dress like an American Republican in suits with white shirts and red ties. The film’s true beating heart is Johnny Burfoot (Daniel Day-Lewis), a homeless right-wing hood who oscillates uncertainly between Omar’s world and his own. Omar accepts his Uncle Nasser’s (Saaed Jaffrey) magic ticket out of skid row, while Johnny tentatively floats around at his friend’s sidelines, though Nasser soon takes a liking to Johnny as well, recruiting the latter as an enforcer to throw tenants out of the flats he’s attempting to renovate.
Omar and Johnny also tenderly fuck on occasion, which Frears and Kureishi treat with a casualness that remains revelatory. My Beautiful Laundrette isn’t a gay “issues” film, and it isn’t intended as a soapbox lecture about British nationalism either. It isn’t even a simple condemnation of Thatcherism. The film is about all of these things and none of these things simultaneously, and that’s what makes your head spin: the realization that the filmmakers intend to treat you like an adult who understands that absolutism, of even an idealistic bent, is the indulgence of a fool. So much is collectively in this film, which initially appears to be so flip, bawdy, and spontaneous. This is a coming-of-age movie in which no one comes of age, except, perhaps, the audience, who’s shown the lay of a land that’s governed by an interconnecting, ideologically irresolvable nesting series of relativistic quandaries. Nasser, who’d be a villain in a conventional film, isn’t even so awful, as his greed is partially understood as a desire to even the social ledgers between the Pakistanis and the Brits, as well as a reaction to the austere religious element he resents of his own home culture. This is the capitalist trap in microcosm: to feel inferior and over-compensatory regardless of one’s lot in life, even if said lot involves a spot that’s unambiguously at the top of the pecking order. These taboo subjects are subsumed into the texture of the narrative with a sense of tossed-off, “shit happens” bonhomie.
Frears and Kureishi rarely emphasize typical dramatic beats. Time has a way of passing suddenly and inexplicably in My Beautiful Laundrette, and conflicts are forgotten only to resurface with the arbitrariness of actual life. The filmmakers routinely lead the audience down traditional narrative rabbit holes in any given scene, only to subsequently tunnel into surprising detours. For instance, there’s the encounter between Nasser’s white mistress, Rachel (Shirley Anne Field) and his daughter, Tania (Rita Wolf), at the re-opening of Omar’s laundrette. We logically expect Tania to morally “win” this scene as the daughter of the woman Nasser and Rachel are betraying, until Rachel reveals a vulnerability that breathtakingly alters one’s perception of her. Rachel says to Tania that everything is open to her as a young woman, and that the only thing ever open to herself was Nasser. The masterstroke of this exchange is the understanding that Rachel’s surprising herself with these sentiments as much as she is Tania.
My Beautiful Laundrette was the second in a terrific run of films for Frears that would end with The Grifters. This period of the director’s career, and even the less consistent phases that would follow it, are marked by a bracing refusal to editorialize that’s complemented by an open pleasure that’s taken in debauchery, which is represented by a highly stylized yet discreet mise-en-scène. Frears enjoys the schemes of his schemers, for their energy and innovation, though the humanist in him refuses to shortchange the damage that’s inevitably wrought by his characters’ shenanigans. In My Beautiful Laundrette, said damage is most vividly embodied by Day-Lewis’s beautifully primal performance, which renders a heartbreaking portrait of a man who feels more than is really allowed of him by his world. Johnny’s licking of Omar’s ear in one charged moment isn’t just one of the most erotic scenes in British cinema, but an attempt to reach out. In the film’s miraculous ending, Omar reaches back.
The colors are richly saturated, which brings into relief just how painterly My Beautiful Laundrette is, with haunting neo-noir colors that anticipate Neil Jordan’s equally gorgeous Mona Lisa. Reds, blues, and the yellows of the streetlights particularly stand out with their robustness, though the grays are subtly, pleasingly multi-hued. Correspondingly, image depth and dimension are terrific, emphasizing the film’s canny use of planes (such as in the mirror sequences in the launderette). There’s also a pleasing, source material-appropriate grittiness and softness to the image, though it’s never so soft as to lose detail. Skin palettes and textures are also impressive. The soundtrack is luxurious, nearly creamy, most pointedly in its preservation of Ludas Tonalis’s deceptively cheeky score, which contains melancholic multitudes. Diegetic effects are crisp and clean. A very sturdy, handsome release.
The new conversations with Stephen Frears, writer Hanif Kureishi, producers Tim Bevan, Sarah Radclyffe, and Colin MacCabe, and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton collectively offer roughly 90 minutes’ worth of footage in which intelligent craftspeople discuss their work with rigor and specificity. Frears is fascinatingly unsentimental and contentious when speaking with MacCabe, insisting, with somewhat studied humility, on his relative innocence regarding My Beautiful Laundrette’s incendiary subject matter, as well as its legacy for having jump-started the studio Working Title and his and Daniel Day-Lewis’s careers, not to mention its pervading influence as a key work of stylized British working-class portraiture. Speaking of which, Stapleton elaborates on his lighting choices and his collaboration with Frears, and how they strived for a heightened, "unreal" formal poetry as a marked contrast from the work of someone like Ken Loach, citing Paris, Texas and the early videos of Julien Temple as influences, among many others. (Stapleton also astutely observes that the film is "less about passion than friendliness.") Kureishi discusses the overlaps between the script and his life, memorably adding that Frears encouraged him to make the story "dirtier" in rewrites. One wishes that Criterion had simply assembled these pieces into one supplement, but that’s a quibble. These features offer a wide variety of historical, political, and sociological context in a remarkably streamlined amount of time. The trailer and an elegant essay by Graham Fuller round out the package.
My Beautiful Laundrette is a reminder that truly progressive films present their revolutionary attitudes as a given. Criterion refurbishes the film with a similar sense of subtle grace.