My Beautiful Laundrette
In more ways than one, "My Beautiful Laundrette" is
like a garden of delights blossoming out of an arid
London slum. This astringent and comic British film
takes a friskily original fix on upwardly mobile
Pakistanis twisting the tail of the British lion
for their own ends.
If the Pakistanis are going to be treated like second-class
citizens in England, the ones in this wittily astute
movie intend to respond in first-class style: i.e.,
making as much money as possible — even if it is
on the shady side of the street.
That's also the decision reached by teen-aged Omar
against the wishes of his widowed father (Roshan
Seth), a once-distinguished journalist in India,
whose disillusion and dependence on vodka have not
watered down his belief in the value of education.
When the industrious, ambitious Omar, a lad with
a beguiling, innocent look, takes a job in the garage
owned by his wealthy uncle Nasser, he is easily seduced
into opting for (British) pound power over brain
Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), a plumb, sentimental, self-indulgent
gent with a British mistress and suspicious Pakistani
wife, treats Omar like a son. Nasser's sexy, restless
daughter, Tania, views him as a possible way out
of her restrictive family circle.
Before long, Omar persuades his uncle to let him
manage a run-down laundrette and he begins running
shady errands for Nasser's flashy relative, Salim,
an art collector whose purchases are financed by
drug running, property rackets and porn videos.
When Omar (Gordon Warnecke) has an encounter with
an old school chum, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), now
hanging out with a gang of white racist punks, he
persuades Johnny to join him in refurbishing the
laundrette into a wash-and-dry dreamland complete
with neon lights, an aquarium, video games and Muzak.They
not only have a business to hold them together, but
a puppyish homosexual attachment, which is intermittently
threatened in one way or another by Tania, a cool
kid with an eye for the main chance.
All these relationships have been developed with
surpassing acumen and richness by Hanif Kureishi,
a controversial young playwright with a Pakistani
father and an English mother. Kureishi not only handles
the characterizations with great skill, but he also
weaves a superb tapestry of the racial and class
conflicts between the determined Pakistanis and
the unemployed white toughs who react to the "Paki's" good
fortune with a mug's violence.
These class differences also play a part in the
confrontation between Tania and Nasser's mistress,
Rachel, beautifully portrayed by Shirley Anne Field,
with warmth and understanding about Tania's hostility
and a sadly dignified attempt to hold onto Nasser,
the one good thing in her life.
Director Stephen Frears, who demonstrated a faculty
for achieving suspense in the existential thriller "The
Hit" here shows that he can meet the demands
of a much more complex script with equal ease and
with a visual sense about the seedy London milieu
that's every bit as keen and fresh as his eye for
the rolling landscapes of Spain in that earlier movie.
He has elicited marvelous performances from the
entire cast, particularly Jaffrey ("The Chess
Players" and "A Passage to India")
and Seth (Nehru in "Gandhi") Daniel Day-Lewis
gives a sharp portrayal of Johnny, struggling hopelessly
to find a way out of the petty thefts and Paki-bashing
of his gang.
It's an unvarnished revelation of a way of life
- and a lesson in how to make movies that say something
in the most entertaining way possible.
San Francisco Chronicle April 4, 1986