My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Directed by Stephen Frears

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A social-minded independent film centered around a small business which escalates into some level of violence, My Beautiful Laundrette feels like the precursor to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.  It’s theatrical with its plotting, but every dramatic turn seems to say something about society at large.  In that way the scope is both narrow and all-encompassing.

The film is centered around the rejuvenation of a rundown launderette, fueled by Omar’s (Gordon Warnecke) desire to make something of himself, with the help of his Uncle Nasser and Nasser’s right hand man Salim.  When he runs into a childhood friend, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), he encourages him to straighten out his life and come work with him at the launderette.

The film tackles everything from class hierarchies, homosexuality, family to race relations and capitalism.  In a way it really is overstuffed, but I suppose that’s the point, just to throw this all out there.  The film feels like a pressure cooker with sometimes underdeveloped characters (who nevertheless represent something specific) thrown in just so we can see how that stirs the pot.  Characters reflect the old guard and the new, some were once fascists or still are, others resist change or embrace it, and then certain would-be conflicts are left unresolved for another time.

There’s a lot going on here, beyond any single confrontation or any two characters.  It has a lot to do with Omar and Johnny, but even their romantic relationship feels like such a small part of the story, particularly as the low point in their relationship is solved almost unbelievably quickly, just so the story can get on to the next point of social commentary.

It’s inspired and a bit of a mess, albeit an affectionate mess.  The film feels like it was made with a fiery passion to say something about the world, apparently about Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom.  Late in the story Omar’s alcoholic, depressed father and Omar’s uncle will meet for the first time onscreen, repairing certain differences quickly enough that they can pivot the conversation to discuss the state of affairs in England versus Pakistan.  This is juxtaposed with Johnny’s old hooligan friends retaliating against Salim, beating him to within an inch of his death after he ran one of them over with his car.  The two aging brothers suggest that there is a freedom here that they didn’t have back home, and we immediately cut to Salim getting punched in the face, as if to question the conclusion the brothers have come to.

There is then a subsequent moment, not long after, in which Nasser’s brother leaves him, then he looks across at a nearby train tracks and sees his daughter standing on the platform, prepared to leave.  In one of those classic movie shots she’s there, the train passes, then she disappears.  It’s the imagery of a nightmare, and it’s the last we see of Omar’s uncle Nasser.

For Omar, we end with him and Johnny in a rather innocent moment of intimacy.  They have hidden their relationship from Nasser and most people in the story, and because they are never found out, it’s as if the film is saying that it doesn’t matter what Nasser or his generation thinks.  As an interracial homosexual couple, Omar and Johnny in their destruction of social expectations represent the future.  Nasser, representing the past, finds himself stuck in a strange nightmare, giving the audience an almost eerie impression that he’s been dead this entire time, at least were this movie more like The Sixth Sense in tone.

Up Next: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Rio Bravo (1959)

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