My Beautiful Laundrette

April 23, 2012

My Beautiful Laundrette is a sneaky little movie. It unspools so languidly, and plays its cards out so coolly, that you can’t quite figure out where it’s headed until at least halfway through. By that time, however, the considerable charms of the film will have worked their influence.

The subject matter presents an unfamiliar and exotic milieu. The main characters are members of London’s Pakistani subculture, who have their own customs and hierarchy.

At the top of the heap is Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), an entrepreneur with vaguely underworldish connections. As a favor to his brother (Roshan Seth, who played Nehru in Gandhi), he agrees to give nephew Omar (Gordon Warnecke) a start in the world of business. Omar can wash cars at Nasser’s garage.

Well, it turns out Omar has a natural savvy for capitalism. Within days, he finagles his way into managing one of Nasser’s rundown launderettes—a low rung on the ladder, to be sure, but Omar has bright dreams of success. First, a laundrette dynasty, then…who knows?

By chance, Omar runs into a former school chum, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, last seen as the prig in A Room with a View), who is now punked-out, roaming the streets, and harassing “Pakis” like Omar. But Omar offers Johnny a job fixing up the little launderette, and the business, and a friendship, is off and running.

As it turns out, the friendship between these two is more intimate than you might expect. One of the film’s most ingenious sequences is the grand opening of the refurbished launderette, as Nasser and his mistress waltz among the washers to the Muzak of “The Skater’s Waltz” while Omar and Johnny are doing a different kind of waltz in the back room.

There are plenty of cold realities along the way, like the gangsterism within the Pakistani business world and the vicious punks who want the Pakistanis out. Yet the overriding tone of My Beautiful Laundrette is sweetness.

Hanif Kureishi’s nimble script takes its own time setting up characters and situations. And director Stephen Frears, that fine stylist (The Hit) who has spent most of his career making a score of films for British TV (unfortunately unexported), is in no mood to rush things along. The gentle pace and tone are underwhelming at first, but the cumulative effect is quite beguiling.

My Beautiful Laundrette was filmed for British TV, which explains its modest technical quality. It’s been such a hit at film festivals, including this year’s Seattle fest, that it’s getting play all over the United States. That’s a happy event, but it makes you wonder: Are all British TV movies this good? If they are, those of us without transcontinental-power satellite dishes have been missing a lot.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1986

This felt like the beginning of an interesting moment for a group of Britain’s most talented filmmakers, some of whom were coming back to big-screen work after doing TV for a while (Ken Loach and Mike Leigh included). I’m not sure I would call Frears a “stylist” exactly.