My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

D: Stephen Frears
S: Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day Lewis

Risky low budget British production based on a play by Hanif Kureishi which showcases superb performances from generally unknown young leads and is bouyed by an agreeably off-beat sense of humour. First generation British Pakisani Gordon Warnecke is given an opportunity to work for wheeler-dealer uncle Saeed Jaffrey which involves him taking over a run-down laundrette and making it profitable. He enlists the help of childhood friend Day Lewis, now a neo-nazi white trash gang member, but with whom he shares a homosexual relationship. Complications ensue including the anger of Day Lewis' deserted gang, the alcoholic despair of Warnecke's disillusioned father and the attentions of several cousins which result in romantic and financial disasters.

For no evident reason the soundtrack of this film occasionally erupts with the emulated sound of soap suds popping. This contributes to its overall feeling of 'quirkiness', a term often too loosely applied, but which describes the actual aims of this film very well. It is infectiously determined to undermine stereotypes of race and sexuality and plays with character and dramatic convention with style and energy.

As a film about homosexuality, it is most notable for not so being very much about it, despite the furore which erupted on the film's initial release. It admirably concerns itself with a loving relationship between friends who happen to be at the centre of a little drama which has piqued our interest from the start (they do not even kiss until almost half way through the film). Helped by the performances of Warnecke and Day Lewis, this becomes a convincing story in a convincing world, not a message movie. Similarly, the film is not heavy handed about its critique of Thatcher's Britain, and subtly explores the power relations within an ethnic community without drawing undue attention to what is going on. As the story unfolds, layers of social, sexual and racial analysis are revealed, but it never looses its comic edge, nor teeters into broad parody or farce.

Frears' direction is smooth and controlled, even though the story moves quickly and involves several strong characters with dramas of their own to play out around the central relationship between the two men. He is helped, of course by Kureishi's script, which flows with an ease that comes from a strong grip on the human dimensions of any social or political subject. It is not a classical Hollywood weepie or a film of social protest. It is rather a frozen moment in time which encapsulates all of the issues of that time in identifiable and entertaining narrative which involves and generally wins the sympathy of the viewer.

Mind you, its is still fairly unconventional in pace and tone, and may not appeal to all viewers. Those who are willing to give it a chance may find it offers some rewards.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.