I’ve long since said that if you want to know what life in 1980s Britain was like, what it felt like, looked like and sounded like, then there is really only two films to check out: one of them is Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too and the other is My Beautiful Laundrette.
It’s a bit of a fib actually. I mean I could parrot on about how Mike Leigh’s High Hopes or Meantime, along with Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch can also transport you back in time to what the 1980s really were like, but I’m here specifically to talk about My Beautiful Laundrette and overall I think my point still stands: My Beautiful Laundrette simply is the 1980s. The worrying thing is, I think it’s becoming the present day too.
There are many lies said about My Beautiful Laundrette and perhaps chief among them is the myth that the Stephen Frears directed film, from an Oscar nominated script by Hanif Kureishi, is somehow an example of gritty realism. For all its references to Thatcher and the new enterprise culture that is shown to legitimise Rachman-like, immigrant ‘businessmen’, and for all the pervading atmosphere of racism and homophobia the film is imbued with, My Beautiful Laundrette is a touch too stylised and a little too earnestly stagey to actually be considered as a proponent of gritty realism. This isn’t the naturalism of Ken Loach. No, there’s a touch of sparkle and magic to the proceedings that elevates the film from the gutter it purportedly depicts life from.
If I may return to Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too for a second, I believe that that film perhaps offers a more realistic and accurate depiction of life for the majority of Asian immigrants in the 1980s. The characters there worked hellish, unsociable and pitifully paid hours in minicab firms where they invariably chat up naive and up-for-it ‘gora’ girls, setting up homes in the rundown terraced slums that the parents of such girls would have moved out of a decade or so earlier. In My Beautiful Laundrette, it is the Asians who are Thatcher’s beloved Yuppies, living in plush semis and serving (and putting to work) the disenfranchised and poor white youths of the community with their chain of businesses. This is exemplified by Uncle Nasser (the superlative Saeed Jaffrey) and his cocky, bequiffed son Salim (Derrick Branche), who have embraced Thatcherism wholeheartedly, believing the key to acceptance in British society is wealth; “I’m a professional businessman,” Nasser attests at one point. “Not a professional Pakistani”. This is an attitude which places him in stark contrast to his ailing brother(Roshan Seth), a left wing journalist who thrived back home and was courted and applauded by society, but is now little more than a shipwreck drowning in Vodka, on the rocks of England. Fearing for the future of his young, gauche nephew Omar (Gordon Warnecke), Nasser decides to take him under his wing and a plan soon forms for Omar to prove his worth to the family by taking over and renovating one of his uncle’s loss-making businesses, the eponymous laundrette into a luxury operation “as big as the Ritz” and where a charismatic figure from Omar’s past is often to be found.
That this figure, a former skinhead called Johnny, is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis is one of My Beautiful Laundrette‘s clear strengths. It’s little wonder this role catapulted Day-Lewis into the big time because he’s electric here; he seems instantly iconic, prowling catlike throughout the proceedings, challenging audience perceptions. And that’s the other key strength in Frears’ film, because it’s not just a film about race, it’s also a film about sexuality. It’s hard to put into words the surprise I first felt when, watching this in the ’80s as a family video rental, my child eyes took in arguably the first ever same-sex kiss I ever witnessed, but the muscle memory is still there and even now I can feel something of its shockwave with each rewatch as Johnny and Omar reveal to the audience their true feelings for one another. This was the 1980s remember, when depictions of homosexuality were still, in the main, of the Mr Humphreys, Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams variety. It is most emphatically here that My Beautiful Laundrette is at its most real: addressing something previously unspoken in society whilst simultaneously challenging cliche and stereotype in one fell swoop. Here, homosexuals aren’t camp comic relief or sad men in rainmacs doomed to a life alone, they can by the unprepared sight of Daniel Day-Lewis’ donkey jacket clad streetwise tough too – someone who just so happens to like men. And what’s more, his like is for an Asian man in particular, something which adds a whole new dimension to the character’s shameful past allegiance with the National Front and his ongoing friendship with the ragtag gang of bovver boys he continues to hang around with. When Richard Graham’s gang member Genghis challenges him over his perceived ‘skivvying’ for Omar and his family, it’s with a delicious subtext that a simple argument on the colour of their skin alone simply wouldn’t offer. But if the same-sex kiss wasn’t already controversial enough, it’s unsurprising to learn that, the interracial context was also inflammatory for the 1980s and, when the film premiered in New York, it was picketed by the Pakistan Action Committee who protested that Kureishi’s screenplay was ‘the product of a vile and perverted mind’.
When the film is at its best – on its spin cycle if you will, at the risk of labouring a laundrette analogy – My Beautiful Laundrette is an enjoyable and engrossing experience precisely because of its characterisation. There’s no tokenism or stereotypes here and Kureishi just isn’t interested in the notion of positive representation for his protagonists – something that populated a good deal of well meaning multicultural entertainment at the time – as each character is seen to have their flaws. Overall the cast are canny enough to both understand and use this depth of character in their performances and Frears has a good eye for getting the best out of his players as well as capturing so honestly the milieu of Thatcher’s Britain in a way that doesn’t feel like a party political broadcast. However, it has to be said that the film can get a little sludgy too. It’s origins as a Channel 4 TV drama are never obscured, as every twenty minutes the action fades out for the intended advert break, and it’s somewhat dated in terms of how it approaches the simmering tensions and threats of violence integral to the plot. Some of those performances don’t always stand up either; Warnecke has the unenviable position of having to match Day-Lewis and it would be fair to say he struggles on some occasions. However, the character of Omar, with his naive innocence jostling alongside his ambitious streak, ensures that any shortcomings in performance feel somehow fitting for the portrayal.
A strong essay on race, immigration, sexuality, power and class, My Beautiful Laundrette could once have been seen solely as something of a time capsule from Thatcher’s Britain but – and as I alluded to at the start of this review – not any more. As with so many political films of the 1980s there’s a prescience and a meaning to be (re)discovered now in our fractured political landscape, a landscape whose brand of bitter grassroots populism and nakedly cruel and arrogant government has led to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, and angry social divisions. We live in a world where waves of toxic xenophobia and racism, as well as a fear and condemnation of educated open mindedness and anything seen as being remotely different is seeping into our fault lines. The acceptance that Nasser and Salim so believed would be theirs if only they possessed enough money has never been granted, and (as the essays accompanying this BFI release point out) in the post 9/11 and 7/7 world, combined with the very recent devastating attacks in Manchester and London, has meant it is unlikely that it will any time soon. The world we live in today is not unlike the divisive, casino capitalistic one which My Beautiful Laundrette was born into and it’s story can serve as a timely and pivotal reminder. To that end, I am very grateful to see the BFI’s excellent new release in both standard and high definition, containing a plethora of special features including an archive feature length audio Q+A, a personal recollection of the film from star Gordon Warnecke, Stephen Frears’ film A Personal History of British Cinema, and two short films, I’m British But… and Memsahib Rita, from Asian filmmakers Gurinder Chada and Prathiba Parma respectively.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE IS OUT NOW ON BFI DVD & BLU-RAY