My Beautiful Laundrette (1985, dir. Stephen Frears)
Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Londoner adrift. He’s dropped out of school and spends his time caring for his father Hussein, bed-ridden and increasingly inclined to drink since the suicide of his wife the previous year. Hussein realizes his son needs to expand his horizons, so he sends Omar to Uncle Nasser who sets him to work washing cars in a parking garage before handing over his failing laundrette. Omar envisions this facility becoming a place the reinvigorates the neighborhood and beginning his fortune. Through circumstance, he reunites with Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), an old schoolmate who got caught up in the right-wing nationalist movement. Johnny breaks away from his mates but struggles. He and Omar have romantic feelings for each other but exist in two very different communities in their city.
Laundrette is a film very much of its time. Within minutes, the hardships brought by Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister are felt. London is run down, slum lords rule the roost, and anyone who can’t find a job is tossed out on their ass. The Pakistani community is not feeling the purse strings tighten as much and are seeking out fairly non-glamorous avenues to keep the money rolling in. Omar’s father is a socialist and journalist, two things that stand in contrast to the other highlighted members of his community’s ideals. While Hussein rails against Thatcher to Omar, Nasser talks with delight about how he has benefitted from her policies. Many Pakistani characters admit they feel torn between two homes, but Nasser bluntly states that as Pakistan became increasingly theocratic, it was obvious that people like him who enjoyed Western values had to leave.
However, these ideas are never really explored in depth. This is because Laundrette is a film so stuffed with ideas and wanting to say so much about them it never gets the opportunity to say much about anything. It intends to be a slightly light slice of life type film, but also a commentary on contemporary politics, but also a love story, but also a movie about Anglo-Pakistani identity. I kept thinking the picture had all the potential to be a fantastic mini-series, a Pakistani Shameless, about communities in the poor neighborhood in conflict. The romance between Omar and Johnny is meant to be the core of the film based on promotions but I felt it was secondary to the exploration of racial identity in Thatcher’s England.
When the film comes up in conversation, it is often to highlight the breakout performance of Daniel Day Lewis. I found him to be a little dull and nothing spectacular. He wasn’t terrible, the film just didn’t have the time to develop his character to become anything interesting. Omar, the protagonist of the movie, is more interesting but I never felt the deep struggle between his love for Johnny and his community in the way I believe Frears intended. The romance is never something the characters suddenly begin confronting their family about. It’s left a little ambiguous as to where they go from here. The third act shows that life isn’t going to run smoothly for the couple. When the film ends the story doesn’t. You can feel that life will continue for these people and it won’t go smoothly. But in times of government austerity life is a struggle that only those we love can help us through.