Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi
Producers: Sarah Radclyffe
Starring: Gordon Warnecke, Daniel-Day Lewis, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 97 mins
Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette, written by the celebrated writer Hanif Kureishi, was originally filmed on a low-budget as a TV drama (you can even see where the ad breaks were meant to go) but its rapturous reception at the Edinburgh film festival lead to the film being released theatrically upon which it received almost universal critical acclaim and, amazingly, an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. I say ‘amazingly’ not because Kureishi’s fascinating, poetic and unconventional script was in any way undeserving of the accolade but because it feels so British that Academy attention was surely unexpected. My Beautiful Laundrette fits neatly into a swathe of astonishing 80s dramas that examined issues of class, race and sexuality alongside a warts-and-all vision of contemporary Britain in which the writer was invariably the real star and yet My Beautiful Laundrette is in some ways very different from these socially-conscious reference points. Kureishi’s depiction of a wide range of types sidesteps obvious messages and instead opts to present the viewer with a group of flawed characters in all of whom he then identifies varying degrees of humanism. In doing so, he created one of the most controversial pieces of the 80s, managing to offend homophobes enraged by the refreshingly matter-of-fact depiction of a gay relationship and a portion of the Asian community who saw its representation of money-hungry Pakistani entrepreneurs as degrading. In truth, Kureishi offers a far more mixed view of the Asian community and a far more interesting one than can be found in more straightforward examinations of British bigotry in the 80s. The charge levelled at the film by the Pakistan Action Committee that is was “the product of a vile and perverted mind” suggests that there was probably a good deal of homophobia driving their objections as well.
Unfortunately, My Beautiful Laundrette’s extraordinary screenplay is not matched by suitably strong performances across the board. The best work comes from Saeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth as the politically-opposed brothers Nasser and Papa and Shirley Anne Field as Nasser’s glamorous mistress Rachel. Field (recognisable to fans of British cinema from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Peeping Tom and Alfie) apparently insisted that Kureishi rewrote her character properly before she’d commit to wearing red underwear, and in doing so she bagged one of the film’s best moments in a cross-generational confrontation in the titular laundrette. Jaffrey and Seth, meanwhile, both give boldly-drawn, riveting turns in two of the film’s most important representations of differing ideologies. Where the film falls down is in the casting of the young roles and that, surprisingly, includes the young Daniel Day-Lewis as ex-National Front member Johnny. Day-Lewis would go on to become one of the most celebrated actors of all time but here he is merely passable, touching on a similarly broad style to Jaffrey and Seth but without the conviction to quite pull it off. But it is Gordon Warnecke, in the central role of Omar, who hurts the film most. He is distractingly flat in a role that requires dramatic weight in order to make the film really work. Early on, in one of Kureishi’s most vivid images, Omar imagines physically wringing out his father and ending up with puddles of vodka and a flap of skin like a damp condom. Essentially, this is what Warnecke does to every great speech he is gifted. The love affair between Omar and Johnny, though deliberately written with the same restraint as every other element of the film, consequently fails to convince.
Having long been a big fan of 80s British drama, I came to My Beautiful Laundrette expecting to love it. It was not this weight of expectations that made the film something of a disappointment for me though, so much as it was one element emphatically living up to them and another disastrously undermining that. There’s a great film to be made from My Beautiful Laundrette’s screenplay but this is not it and sadly a modern attempt to give it a better treatment would be futile, since the film would not work as a retrospective period piece instead of a politically relevant topical satire. I’ll probably return to My Beautiful Laundrette at some point as it is undoubtedly an important film that deserves attention and perhaps even reappraisal but my inclination, while still smarting from the unfortunate imbalance that scuppered the film for me, would perhaps be to read the screenplay.
My Beautiful Laundrette is released by the BFI on Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray on 21 August 2017. As well as including the usual high quality illustrated booklet featuring full film credits and essays, this generous package also has a barrage of superb extras.
– 1986 Q&A at the ICA with Stephen Frears, Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Radclyffe and Tim Bevan (98 mins)
– Gordon Warencke on My Beautiful Laundrette (25 mins)
– Original theatrical trailer
– Typically British: A Personal History of British Cinema by Stephen Frears (77 mins)
– I’m British But… – Gurinder Chadha’s documentary on being a British Asian in the 1980s (30 mins)
– Memsahib Rita – Prathiba Parma’s short film exploring the physical and emotional violence of racism (19 mins)