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Fun and Fassbinder come out in the wash


March 28, 1986

AS THUGS BATTER down his door, a gay working-class punk announces, "We're moving out," and then hits the streets. That's the first line of director Stephen Frears' invigorating and intelligent comedy My Beautiful Laundrette, a film that combines the intense, unsparing political analysis of Rainer Werner Fassbinder with a light touch and a giddy sense of humor.

The gay Sting-like punk, Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis, unrecognizable in every way from his role as the prissy suitor in A Room With a View), is best friends with and eventually lover to Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young Pakistani who lives with his father (Roshan Seth) as the story commences. The old man, a socialist, is a drunken intellectual disgusted by the Empire and his son's lack of ambition. "He's on the dole, like everyone else in England," he tells his capitalist brother, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey). "He sweeps the dust from one place to another." Nasser immediately offers Omar a job washing cars.

Omar accepts, meets Nasser's business partner, Salim (Derrick Branche), who says of Omar's employment: "At least you'll be with your own people, not on a dole queue, and Mrs. Thatcher will be happy with me." Omar also meets Nasser's loving white mistress, Rachel (Shirley Anne Field), who sees in Pakistani immigrants a future for England and for herself. Nasser sees the same future: "In this country which we hate and love," he remarks jubilantly, "you can get everything you want, but you have to know how to squeeze the teats of the system."

Noting that Nasser has learned how, Omar takes lessons. Before long, he's running a laundrette, is dealing drugs, and has hired Johnny to work for him. When one of Omar's relatives asks why Johnny is waiting outside the house, the newly callous Omar quips: "He's lower-class. He won't come in unless asked - unless he's doing a burglary." Johnny puts up with the abuse in part because he can't keep his hands off Omar ("You haven't touched him," is his answer to a Pakistanti woman who thinks Omar is no great shakes) and in part because he shares the prevailing opinion that Omar is, as Salim puts it, "our future."

What kind of future is that? "I want big money," Omar reveals to Johnny. "I'm not going to be beaten down by this country." Remembering how Johnny and his uncouth working-class friends made fun of Omar for being a Paki in primary school, he adds: "Now you're washing my floor; that's the way I like it." Nasser, Omar's guru, has become so corrupted by capitalism he doesn't want to go back to Pakistan: " That country's been sodomized by religion. It's beginning to interfere with the making of money."

Hanf Kureishi, the author of My Beautiful Laundrette, is a 29-year-old playwright born in South London to a Pakistani father and an English mother, and he shares with Fassbinder an absolute absence of sentimentality regarding the oppressed. Kureishi's exploration of the disturbing tendency of "the people" to identify with their aggressors ("Oh dear," the socialist laments, "the working class is such a great disappointment to me") reproduces Fassbinder's work in a dozen films, and Kureishi's explication of the power relationship in the homosexual romance between Omar and Johnny recalls Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends. But Kureishi's sensibility is very much his own - he's more compassionate than Fassbinder (the portrayal of the white mistress is heart- wrenching) and far funnier. The zingers fly by so fast in My Beautiful Laundrette they almost go unnoticed: . Omar finances his laundrette renovations by dealing drugs. How did he do it? someone wonders. Snaps Nasser: "Government grant." . Nasser's Pakistani wife places a curse on the mistress, who breaks out in a hideous rash. "What's worse," moans the mistress, "my furniture keeps moving around. It's not what I'm used to." . "Nasser," says Omar, "is on a marathon sulk. He's going for a world record."

Almost any director would be tempted to point up those lines as punchlines, but Frears, who has worked in British TV for 15 years and is best known in Canada for The Hit, lets comedy and comment flow naturally into each other without wielding the red pencil. Technically, he's a master of the medium: camera work that would seem flamboyant in any other context (there is one crane shot that leaps a tall building in a single bound, slides into the street and proceeds to record an entire scene staged in one continuous take) is integrated without fuss into the film's kinetic and well-planned but never studied style. (Frears' dexterity, combined with Kureishi's comic complexity, can take some getting used to. When My Beautiful Laundrette, which speeds though its subject with the grace of a sleek hare, was first screened at last year's Festival of Festivals, this tortoise accused it of psychological "incoherence." There are some days when some people should stay in their shells.)

Kureishi and company don't offer solutions to the problems they depict (this is a movie, not a political platform), but they do present them as they have not been presented before, and that in itself is the beginning of change. Exhorting Omar to enter university, the battered old socialist elucidates the film's method: "We must have knowledge if we are to see clearly what is being done, and to whom, in this country."

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