"In this damn country, which we hate and love, you can get anything you want. It's all spread out and available. That's why I believe in England. Only you have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system."—Nasser
Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a Pakistani teenager living in London, gets along doing odd jobs for his uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey, The Man Who Would Be King). Nasser's a successful, if shady, businessman while Omar's father (Roshan Seth, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) is a once-famous journalist, a self-pitying socialist who knocks back vodka and rarely leaves his bed. The two brothers have very different views of the land of opportunity that is England, as well as their familial and cultural connections to their homeland, and Omar looks to each as an example as he tries to find his own way in a country where he is both native and foreigner. Omar convinces his uncle to allow him to manage a rundown laundrette. By swindling his drug dealing uncle Salim, and with the help of his street-wise English friend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York), Omar is able to raise money to renovate the laundrette and turn it into a profitable business. And in the process, Omar and Johnny fall in love.
One of the things I've always admired about director Stephen Frears is his rare ability to handle complex ideas without dumbing them down. My Beautiful Laundrette is a case in point. Yes, it's about the immigrant experience in England in the 1980s, but it's not a simple exposé of exploitation. Frears instead presents a world of complex cycles of exploitation in which formerly used immigrants use the robust (and some would say greed-driven) economy of the time to exploit their adopted home. Omar's family's entrepreneurial spirit, ambition, and desire for wealth don't enable them to fully assimilate into British culture because none of those things mitigate the racism that surrounds them (and that they have internalized), or resolve the psychological tension anyone with two countries is apt to feel—their cultural ascent is purely economic. In one of the film's more telling moments, a street thug friend of Johnny (a native, working class Brit) asks him why he's working at Omar's laundrette: "Why are you working for him? They were brought here to work for us." This is the conflict at the center of the film: what happens to people when economic mobility clashes with an established class system? Frears' short answer is, since it doesn't solve the problems of racism and classism, it leaves characters with new and sometimes irresolvable inner tensions.
Despite the film's politics, Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (Intimacy) avoid stereotyping their characters. Omar's family are types, representing different aspects of the immigrant experience, but we never see them as walking ideologies, as less than fully human. His father is a socialist disillusioned with Thatcher's Britain, knowing utopia will never arrive in his adopted home but not wanting to return to Pakistan either. Though the polar opposite of his brother, Omar's uncle Nasser has no more hope of true assimilation into British culture, but he's learned how to be successful, how to make money. Both men are simultaneously insiders and outsiders, British and foreign. Each could have been an easy-to-read foil to Omar's more nuanced lead, but Frears' direction, coupled with strong performances by Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey, make the brothers both sympathetic and despicable. They are, in other words, realistic human beings. Similarly, Omar's gay relationship with Johnny could have been rote symbolism for the young Pakistani's affection for his adopted home contrasted by his willingness to exploit it. But Warnecke and Day-Lewis bring a warmth and honesty that infuses the political aspects of the screenplay with real humanity. The relationship feels true.
In My Beautiful Laundrette, Stephen Frears makes a political point without ever being inartful, and he delivers a warm and entertaining film in the process. That's a rare thing.
MGM's barebones DVD release of the movie sports a subpar transfer. The image is too soft, too often. In its best moments, the transfer displays a patina of fine grain that gives it a film-like look in keeping with its natural color scheme. Unfortunately, the best moments are far too intermittent to fully recommend the disc. Colors are natural, and the overall look is appropriately gritty but, even given the film's low budget, the DVD's flaws don't appear to stem entirely from source limitations. If the movie's a must-own for you, the image quality is bound to be better than previous home video releases, and at least the DVD frames it at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. But you're going to be disappointed MGM didn't give the transfer a tad more attention.
The audio exhibits a cramped dynamic range, even for mono. Stanley Myers' (Sarafina!) score suffers most, but with its alternating between cornball bubble sounds backed by pedal bass tones and synthesizer suspense music that sounds like it belongs in a bad TV cop show, the score's always been one of my least favorite parts of the movie. Besides the limited dynamics, the track is largely free of hiss and distortion, and dialogue's always discernible.
If My Beautiful Laundrette has a major flaw, it's that Thatcher's England is long gone, taking with it some of the movie's political significance. Still, its characters are drawn so honestly, it continues to play as a decent serio-comic character study nearly twenty years later. If you've never seen it, it's worth checking out. Due to the mediocre quality of the disc's transfer, and the complete lack of extras, I'd recommend a rental rather than a purchase.
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