In 1983, a little film company called Working Title saw the light of day in Thatcher’s Britain. One of its first major productions was this film, originally planned as a TV movie but subsequently released in theaters, going as far as earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Today, Working Title is a success story, a big company owned by NBCUniversal. Its two signature names, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, have been recognized as vital influences on British cinema history.
On the surface, My Beautiful Laundrette may look like many later British drama comedies, but its most important contribution is as a commentary on the nation after Margaret Thatcher’s election.
Seeing a chance at a laundrette
Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Londoner who’s taking care of his father Hussein (Roshan Seth). One day, Hussein asks his brother Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) to give Omar a job. The two men are very different, as Hussein is disillusioned over where his adopted country is headed while Nasser is a clever entrepreneur who’s doing very well for himself in spite of his past as a Pakistani immigrant. Omar is hired as a car washer, but Nasser soon takes him to a run-down laundrette where Omar sees his chance – and convinces his uncle to let him run it. After meeting an old childhood friend (and more), Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), who’s become involved with a gang of racist thugs, Omar talks him into joining his enterprise.
They steal a drug delivery intended for Salim (Derrick Branche), another member of the Pakistani community, and sell it. The money is used to get the laundrette into shape. As opening day nears, the question is how far Omar and Johnny can take their adventure without anyone finding out about the money – and the intimacy of their relationship.
Rise of right-wing extremism
The film became director Stephen Frears’s international breakthrough; he has continued to portray his country from different perspectives over the years, as well as exploring sexuality. This is something he has in common with Hanif Kureishi, the screenwriter, whose experiences as the son of a Pakistani man in London informs the film. Kureishi lets Hussein, Omar’s weary father, serve as a truth-teller; he may not have succeeded at much in life, and his current situation is an embarrassment, but he does know that his son’s success at the laundrette is not necessarily a good thing since it prevents him from getting an education. The benefits of being a good entrepreneur are obvious and illustrated in the movie, but Kureishi makes his audience understand that in money-crazed 1980s Britain young men and women can’t afford to be seduced by Thatcherism if that means school falls behind. The movie portrays the rise of British right-wing extremism during the Thatcher years and makes a clear connection with high unemployment.
Homosexuality is depicted as natural between Omar and Johnny, even though neither the Pakistani community nor neo-Nazis can tolerate it. Weighty issues, but all of them are handled with a deft, humorous and light touch (including Ludus Tonalis’s quirky score) without ever running the risk of turning the whole story into a joke.
The cast is perfect, down to the smallest supporting effort. Jaffrey is very entertaining as the lustful, boastful uncle who always sees an opportunity in everything, and Warnecke is charming as Omar who certainly knows what he wants. And then there’s Day-Lewis whose performance is so good here that, according to an interview, he actually inspired Jude Law to become a film actor. Is there a better compliment?
My Beautiful Laundrette 1985-Britain. 98 min. Color. Produced by Tim Bevan, Sarah Radclyffe. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi. Music: Ludus Tonalis. Cast: Saeed Jaffrey (Nasser Ali), Roshan Seth (Hussein Ali), Daniel Day-Lewis (Johnny), Gordon Warnecke (Omar Ali), Derrick Branche, Shirley Anne Field.
Last word: “It was a new idea of being Asian, not the traditional notion of victims cowering in the corner. I wanted to show that Asians were not all progressive or nice – so I had an Asian as a vicious Thatcherite. It was the first time that I remember the left and Muslim fundamentalists joining hands. Islamic critics would say, ‘You’re saying we’re all homosexuals’ and ‘You shouldn’t wash dirty linen in public’. And the left would say ‘You should be standing up for your community’ and ‘You should not attack minority communities’.” (Kureishi, Prospect)