How many times in the history of the medium have we seen a single film rattle as many socio-cinematic paradigms—and done it with as much bio—as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)? Scripted by Hanif Kureishi—his first film credit—and directed by Stephen Frears, this incendiary entertainment made movie stars of London’s teeming South Asian community, featured a central romance that was both interracial and gay, and embraced the tenants of Thatcherite hyper-capitalism only to expose it as fundamentally corrupting and ineffectual with regards to the populace at large. Yet at no point does the film draw attention to its importance or iconoclasm. In one of the excellent supplements contained on Criterion’s new DVD and BD releases of My Beautiful Laundrette Frears claims that he initially didn’t really notice the fact that the story was queer. The film feels so utterly focued on story, character development and milieu that I’m inclined to believe him.
My Beautiful Laundrette begins with second-generation Anglo-Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) essentially trading in his former socialist journalist father, Hussein (Roshan Seth), a man seemingly broken by emigration, for his businessman uncle, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), a man eager to assimilate—complete with white mistress—and capitalize on every carrot of opportunity life in Britain dangles before him. “You have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system,” Nasser insists, and Omar is an apt pupil, rapidly going from washing cars in a garage to refurbishing a dilapidated old laundromat in a predominantly Asian South London nieghbourhood. Omar does this with the assistance of a lanky white working-class factotum named Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis in his breakout role), who along the way becomes Omar’s lover, a development which seems perfectly natural—though its not to interfere with Omar’s single-minded fixation on making lots of money. Homophobia takes a backseat to racism in any case, with the local white thugs threatening Johnny simply for accepting a brown man as his employer. Eventually, in a sequence Frears stages like a late western, those thugs launch a vicious attack on the whole lot of them, making for a ugly climax—though that’s not the end of the story.
So few films had previously plunged a mainstream audience in what was until then an all but invisible immigrant community, with its own rules and ideals and wild contrasts. My Beautiful Laudrette launched a new wave of Asian-centered British films, not to mention Kureishi’s career—he would go on to script Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), My Son the Fanatic (1997), The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), continuing a thread not only of immigrant representation but sexually audacity. Frears would begin a winning streak that would peak with The Grifters (1990) and Day-Lewis, having emulated Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood here, would become like them a star of the first order, known for transforming himself through methody immersion in vocal and body work. Though one could argue that the greatest moments throughout the rest of Day-Lewis’ career, from Christy Brown to Lincoln, are only ever on par with that delicious furtive lick of Omar’s neck, a gesture Criterion has fittingly placed right on the cover of its superb new package.