❉ A brutal, witty, slice of social realism that deconstructs Thatcherism, identity and the notion of society.
Making its Blu-Ray debut today is My Beautiful Laundrette, a comedy drama from 1985, written by Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia) and directed by Stephen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears). Omar Ali, played by Gordon Warnecke, is a British-Pakistani twenty-year-old living in Battersea. His father, a former journalist and now an alcoholic invalid played by the great Roshan Seth, is keen for his son to go to college, but instead Ali takes a job with his well-connected and wealthy uncle Nasser. Nasser takes a chance on Omar and gives him a run-down laundrette to manage, but as his nephew is renovating the building and revitalising the business, he is introduced to an underworld in the Pakistani community of drug traffickers. In the meantime, Omar has reconnected with an old school friend called Johnny, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Johnny has become the leader of a right-wing racist group, but after meeting Omar again he agrees to join forces with him to help with the laundrette and, when the money runs out, with the drug trafficking on the side. The pair bond and eventually form a romantic relationship whilst successfully reopening the laundrette, but all this is threatened by the continued presence of Johnny’s old crew and the drug traffickers.
My Beautiful Laundrette is a brutal, but at times witty, slice of social realism from Film4 that, like the contemporaneous films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Derek Jarman, commentates on, and challenges, the dominant political ideology of the time. As with Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, this challenge comes in the form of the presentation of taboo busting sexual relationships taking place against the background of social deprivation, but Kureishi’s script is more nuanced and complicated than that of Clarke’s film. Whilst Rita, Sue and Bob Too is an excoriating political satire masquerading as a bawdy sex-comedy, My Beautiful Laundrette is far more involved and detailed.
The depictions of the Pakistani community, the sexuality of the two lead characters and the racism of Johnny’s group, are repeatedly subverted and blurred throughout the film. Instead of being a simple case of the heroic politically left versus the villainous politically right, the film deconstructs Thatcher’s society in such a way that no-one ends up untarnished. The most Thatcherite characters in the film are Pakistani drug traffickers, whilst the white racist gangs are depicted as poor, unemployed and disenfranchised.
The two main characters Omar and Johnny are shown to be simultaneously living the dream of Thatcher’s entrepreneurial policies with the laundrette, and spitting in the face of her social policies through their relationship.
For me though the standout character is Omar’s father Hussein, an ex-left wing journalist who is driven to drink by the world around him. It is this character that ties the movie together and makes sense of what Kureishi is presenting. In a sense, all the characters in the film are threatened or corrupted by Thatcherism, but it is only Hussein, and through him the viewer, who can see this damage.
My Beautiful Laundrette is an important movie in many ways. It’s a film that gave Daniel Day-Lewis one of his first main film roles and, with A Room with a View, released in the same year, demonstrated his versatility as an actor. It’s also at the spearhead of a number of films from Film4 that provided an alternative to the depictions of class, gender and race in a cycle of heritage movies such as those both James Ivory and Ismail Merchant (including, ironically, A Room with a View) and the hugely successful Chariots of Fire from 1981. Finally, it is a film that, by challenging both the political establishment and the mainstream British movies at the time, deconstructs Thatcherism, identity and the notion of society. For all that it is also fiercely witty and dryly mordant, particularly in its presentation of the more antagonistic characters. The presentation of the gaudily affluent Pakistani community works as a perfect counterpoint to the faintly buffoonish white pride gang. Kureishi seems to rejoice in ridiculing all aspects of society, but the trio of Johnny, Omar and Hussein are clearly where the film has its moral centre.
As with most great movies, My Beautiful Laundrette works on two levels. It’s an essential record of its time and a perfect example of how movies (and most other cultural forms) in the 1980s operated to expose and oppose the cultural vacuity and amorality of the Thatcher government, but it is also a fun and pacey social comedy with performances that capture the right balance of pathos and grounded reality.
❉ ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ was released on 21 August 2017 from BFI as a dual format DVD/Blu-Ray, Cat. no. BFIB1281. RRP: £14.99. Order here from BFI Shop.