Laundry Days

Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985, 16 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Omar and Johnny (Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis).

A KICK IN THE LILY WHITE TEETH to England’s gilt-hedged public imagery back in 1985, My Beautiful Laundrette raised thirty-year-old mixed-race writer Hanif Kureishi from a stymied playwright (“the theater thing hadn’t been working out for me”) to a counterculture hero, established forty-four-year-old vet Stephen Frears as a world-class director, and gave a struggling twenty-eight-year-old aspirant named Daniel Day-Lewis his first Brando-Dean close-up. Kureishi now likens Day-Lewis’s iconic intro under a lamppost to the image of a rent-boy Clint Eastwood; Frears compares his come-hither gaze to Marlene Dietrich. That they’re both right indicates why the role made Day-Lewis a star and the film became a convention-smashing international sensation.

My Beautiful Laundrette was produced for Britain’s Channel 4 and was only picked up for theatrical distribution after a jubilant reception at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Filmed on serviceable-for-TV 16 mm—ranging from beguiling crane shots to interiors as grainy as a Brighton beach towel—it’s a striking film but not a pretty one. Criterion has cleaned up the repairable blemishes, but it still looks like DP Oliver Stapleton is working his damnedest to shoot an urban Johnny Guitar on equipment and stock left over from an industrial short on workplace safety. From its loopy musical theme of a synthesized washing machine to its agitating way of flipping dramatic setups upside down, nothing here is taken for granted. When the car our hero is chauffeuring is attacked by racist droogs, instead of being terrorized he gets out and strides over to the fetchingly lit countenance of Day-Lewis; all that’s missing is a musical cue to prompt a sweeping MGM pas de deux.

The idiosyncratic beauties of Laundrette emerge from how it grabs gray socialized realism by the horns and wrestles it into breathless submission. Coupling its blithe/flinty gay romance to the black-market comedy of Pakistani immigrants climbing over each other to get on board Thatcher’s “enterprise society,” the movie never proceeds as you’re expecting. A spurned wife employs witchcraft on her husband’s English mistress, Brechtian dialogue’s served up like zippy takeout food, quaint running gags and operatic emotions abound, while the taste-shifting mise-en-scène can from scene to scene, shot to shot, feel like a madcap reconsideration of British cinema (with a side order of influential Americana) shoehorned into ninety-some minutes. Though Laundrette features numerous reflective pauses (literally—Frears loves playing off windows and mirrors), few movies manage to engage viewers on so many rudely lyric levels, keeping the audience nervous with anticipation about what might be coming around the next reel.

“It’s all libido, it’s all excitement, it’s all energy,” Kureishi says in a terrific interview on the disc, describing the movie in terms of sexual awakening: The drama, and comedy, of self-invention here clearly owes as much to David Bowie as it does to the usual film or literary antecedents. But in the volatile jostling within the immigrant clan, where Gordon Warneke’s Omar is wedged between his father the alcoholic-invalid leftist-intellectual (given a bitter, gimlet-eyed, Einstein-haired dolefulness by Rosan Seth) and his precariously rich arch-capitalist uncle (Saeed Jaffrey), there is a defiant aroma of Philip Roth’s extended-family infighting. Pakistani, Jew, Italian, or Irish, this is the way of immigrant subcultures dealing with assimilation and resentment: a paternal nurture that burdens its object to the point of intergenerational asphyxiation.

Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985, 16 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Omar and Johnny (Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis).

Day-Lewis’s Johnny is the bruised wild card who motivates Omar’s transformation from passive son to aggressive materialist without even meaning to. He’s a glassy male inversion of the femme fatale figure—dangerous, erratic, alluring, Omar’s soul mate, his racial antagonist and his class inferior with the complex to show for it. Johnny’s pals are white-power bully boys who are nonetheless about as intimidating as a handful of Guys and Dolls revivalists outfitted in toy-store glasses, ska couture, and skinhead braces. Their violent outbursts have a cartoonish pathos—they are working-class yobs who have fallen so far down the Thatcher totem pole they have to look up when flushing themselves down the toilet.

The dynamics of race, sexuality, and political impotence in My Beautiful Laundrette are so persuasive because it turns academic bywords like postcolonialism hilariously square and inadequate when confronted with its supple, twisted, capricious spirit. Over the course of the movie, Kureishi develops a manner of giving characters reams of exposition and mini–position papers to espouse, then using that overzealous, over-explicit language as a way for these talkative, preening figures to hoist themselves by their exhibitionist petards. Ideology becomes part of the teeming decor, but like stiff middle-class cushiness for Douglas Sirk, Frears finds poignantly ironic resonances in rebounding melodrama and arrested emotions off flat surfaces. (This would have been a far straighter movie—and not merely sexually—if the role of Johnny had gone to Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, or God help us, Kenneth Branagh, who were all under consideration.)

The separate interviews provided here with Kureishi and Frears (“Maybe I brought the hooligan element around”) give an uncommonly clear sense of what was at stake for each of them in the material and the collaboration—how their differences in background complemented and goaded them into pushing the material ever further outside of personal comfort zones. Aside from the gangster cousin Salim (Derrick Branche), who is a dead ringer for Richard Romanus in Mean Streets (1973), the genius of the film is how well Day-Lewis and Warneke and the rest confuse/confound all those white-boy Scorsesean mythologies. If there is a secret discordant heart of the film (as Amy Robinson was for Mean Streets), it’s Rita Wolf’s Tania, the rebellious daughter who breathes acrimony and impatience. She makes the blustery men look like silly poseurs addicted to their own infantilization: She delivers the best line (“I’d rather drink my own urine”) and gets the best exit (vanishing into thin air). The movie has a pert happy ending—boy gets boy, after a bloody denouement—but Tania is the most haunting character for being so thoroughly unreconciled to everything.

My Beautiful Laundrette is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.