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
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."