Nearly two decades have passed since director Stephen Frears released this comedy about the unlikely romance between a working-class British thug and a first-generation Pakistani entrepreneur, set against the bleak turbulence of Thatcher's England. As an impressionable teenager in 1985, I was dazzled by the film's cool and knowing appraisal of polymorphous Londoners — hoodlums, punks, dealers, gays, dreamers — with uncontainable hearts and irresistibly grimy glamour.
Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), once childhood friends, meet again under odd circumstances, as Johnny's thuggish skinhead friends pound on Omar's uncle's car.
But does it hold up? While the film now has the look of a 1980s period piece, and its provocation has mellowed, the story remains a smart, ageless narrative in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet — and in its wry perusal of nationalist xenophobes and immigrant Muslims, My Beautiful Launderette remains fully relevant.
Papa (Roshan Seth) scolds Omar for accepting a job running his uncle's laundrette.
The film made international stars of Frears (who went on to direct Dangerous Liaisons and Dirty Pretty Things), writer Hanif Kureishi (whose script was nominated for an Oscar) and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Sadly, talented co-lead Gordon Warnecke all but disappeared, appearing afterwards mostly in British television shows such as Dr. Who.
Warnecke plays handsome young Omar, the thoroughly assimilated son of an exiled Pakistani journalist. Papa is a bedridden wraith, crippled by alcoholism and his wife's suicide. He pushes Omar out of the squalid flat they share, off the dole and into the familial embrace of his shady capitalist-bourgeoisie uncles.
Johnny confronts his onetime skinhead friend (Neil Cunningham) about working for a Pakistani at the Bubbles laundrette.
Omar takes their lessons of excess too much to heart for Marxist Papa, who ultimately wants his boy to attend college. Uncle Nasser has different advice: "Squeeze the tits of the system!" he jovially exclaims, putting Omar in charge of a wretched laundrette to test his nephew's business acumen.
Omar protects Johnny from marauding skinheads outside their laundrette.
But that laundrette offers all kinds of opportunities for Omar — lucrative, romantic and ultimately, utopian. It gives him the opportunity to hire a tough childhood friend (played by Day-Lewis) to help manage and renovate the peeling walls, bubbling washers and useless public phone booth. No matter that Omar and Johnny's re-acquaintance came about when Johnny's skinhead street gang terrorized Omar's uncle — there's still a palpable connection between Omar and Johnny. In fact, it's true love.
My Beautiful Launderette opens an entire world, deftly exposing its hidden connections and breaking points via the trials faced by Omar and Johnny, but also through the dramas of their neighbors, family and friends. The film remains vastly influential in its low-budget, jocular social realism and in its role of helping to catalyze the movement known as New Queer Cinema (although none of the filmmakers were themselves gay.)
My Beautiful Launderette was originally filmed on 16-milimeter film for British television, and it transfers nicely to DVD. However, the film deserves a much better treatment than Metro Goldwyn Mayer's paltry disc, released in September, which offers only the original trailer as an extra. How fabulous — indeed, how beautiful — to one day have the opportunity to enjoy Day-Lewis's screen test, hear commentary by Frears and Kureishi, and perhaps even watch that episode of Dr. Who starring Gordon Warnecke.