A noteworthy and widely discussed film upon its release in 1985, My Beautiful Laundrette attempts - largely successfully - to employ a deeply ambitious social critique with a comedic portrait of familial and cultural discord. Adapted by Hanif Kureishi from his own stage play and centered around an extended Pakistani family living in Thatcher's England, the film has a lot on its mind: the immigrant experience in a newly adopted land; class structure and social mobility; the sometimes cruel, illusory nature of capitalism; romantic desires and entanglements versus familiar expectations, etc. This may seem somewhat daunting at first glance, but My Beautiful Laundrette's wry, knowing observations and matter of fact presentation render it a generally winning, if flawed, experience. Director Stephen Frears, who at that point had worked mostly in British television, parlayed the surprising success of this film into equally ambitious, small projects (Prick up Your Ears and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, also written by Kureishi) and then mainstream success on both sides of the pond with Dangerous Liaisons and the Grifters. My Beautiful Laundrette is essentially a television project (for Britain's Channel Four) in both its general visual modesty and intimate feel, but it is hardly small in ambition or scope.
Living on the dole in a "black-hole" flat, Omar (Gordon Warnecke) desires change – he may not know exactly what he wants, but his existence as it currently stands certainly isn't it. His bedridden father (Roshan Seth), an alcoholic and embittered intellectual who has never matched his previous levels of success and prestige in Britain, suggests that Omar contact his somewhat shady Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) for help. Nasser is considered a success: he has attained some wealth, is his own boss, and views England through the lens of economic opportunity – he seems to define assimilation in monetary and material terms only. He offers Omar a job washing cars (one of the more ostentatious signs of wealth in consumer culture) in his parking garage, and it's easy to see why the young man is so taken with the opportunity and with Nasser – he flaunts his money, is a bit of a bon vivant, and has an English mistress named Rachel (Shirley Anne Field) with whom he shares carnal afternoons. Omar, wide eyed, naive, and anxious, begins to focus his ambitions toward becoming economically successful and bridging the two seemingly exclusive cultures as his uncle has apparently done.
After demonstrating some keen business insights, Nasser offers Omar the opportunity to manage a rundown, decrepit laundrette in a rough part of town. The place is in shambles, but Omar remains optimistic, absolutely convinced that this is his ticket to upward mobility. He decides to bring in his old school friend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) to help him with the renovations and to manage the operation. Johnny, however, has a few misgivings – he is a street tough with fascist leanings, and his disenfranchised, racist chums reside around the laundrette. Appearing only half convinced at this point as to his political convictions, Johnny agrees to help Omar with his plans in opening a hip, garishly decorated oasis of sorts in the impoverished neighborhood.
As Omar and Johnny continue with their work, Omar's identification with the purely economic makes it increasingly difficult for him to reconcile his family's seemingly antiquated notions that have carried over, such as their desire to have him married off to his independently-minded cousin Tania (Rita Wolf). Tania's situation is similar to Omar's, as she too is caught in a vortex of old world expectations and a complete lack of personal desire to embrace them. Johnny's circle has difficulty in understanding his actions as well, as they cannot comprehend his working for a "dirty Paki" – after all, as one comments, "they were brought over here to work for us." Further complicating the overall situation is that Omar and Johnny have also become lovers, and they do not go to any real lengths to hide it.
As My Beautiful Laundrette continues after setting up this complex stew, rife with comedic and dramatic possibilities, it gains a much surer hand that almost carries through to its frenetic conclusion. The first act, which deals almost exclusively with Omar's innocence and family relations, is a bit shaky and uncertain. Warnecke's handle on his character is also tenuous at best, but as Omar becomes more driven (and therefore less emotional) his performance achieves a greater focus. Saeed excels at oozing moneyed charm and exasperation as Nasser, and Seth convincingly portrays the worst kind of snob as Omar's father – one who, after great success, has resigned from the world in self-disgust and yet believes he is still in the lofty position to judge it. The real discovery here, aside from Frears' light directorial touch, was Day-Lewis. Although enlisted to portray a street fighting type, his frosted hair and slim physique render him reminiscent of – and about as threatening as – Vanilla Ice in his heyday. However, the intensity and total immersion that would characterize many of his later roles is on ample display here.
Comedy / dramas with political leanings are a decidedly tricky business. My Beautiful Laundrette is no exception - it is a defiant, brave, and idiosyncratic film, but perhaps a tad too ambitious for its own good. As written by a man of both Pakistani and English descent, it refuses to yield to either perspective and takes no prisoners. It is also unafraid to cast a critical eye on class structure, something that American films generally tend to avoid. An equal opportunity mirror that wisely adopts a wide, human perspective, My Beautiful Laundrette shades much of the proprietary behavior on display as potentially misguided as it is perfectly understandable.
Video: My Beautiful Laundrette is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Unfortunately, the film does not look that good, and it is difficult to tell whether low-budget television filmmaking or a poor transfer (more than likely both) is to blame. Excessive grain is painfully evident throughout, especially during the nighttime scenes, and the image often appears soft. Flesh tones appear adequate and colors are subdued. There is also the occasional instance of damage, and it appears that no special efforts were taken to improve upon a compromised source print.
Audio: This release includes a DD 1.0 mono mix, which is adequate if not exemplary. The soundtrack for My Beautiful Laundrette veers from the somewhat goofy (burbling and bubbling washing machine noises) to the outright cheesy and badly dated (think of something akin to what you might hear on the Love Boat and you're getting warm). Dialogue remains fairly easy to hear throughout, and the clarity is satisfactory. Although it fares better than the video, in this particular instance that is not much of a compliment.
Also included are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Extras: The only supplemental feature included is a trailer (2:17).
Final Thoughts: Although somewhat dated in fashion and ambience, My Beautiful Laundrette remains a largely warm and affectionate portrait of identity, ambition, and folly. It is also a sharply observed political film that casts a jaded – yet bemused – eye on the nature of competition and power dynamics on individual, familial, and societal levels. These ambitions threaten to render some characters little more than symbolic pawns, and the tonal shifts between comedy and drama are not always smooth, but the script's overall humanity and warmth manage to keep it afloat after an uneasy beginning. It will also remain noteworthy for its then uncharacteristically mature, bold, and nonchalant treatment of Omar and Johnny's relationship.
Depending upon one's approach to the film, My Beautiful Laundrette can be easily isolated and viewed as socio-political skewering of Thatcher's hyper-capitalist England, a coming of age film complete with romance, or a broad-based examination of the Pakistani immigrant experience in Western Europe (specifically London). Any film that earnestly attempts the above - and successfully accomplishes many of its considerable aims - is certainly worthy of praise, but I have always found that I admire the ideas being explored in My Beautiful Laundrette more than its overall execution as a film. I would bestow a guarded recommended for this film, but due to its lackluster DVD release, I recommended it as a rental.