MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE
Directed by Stephen Frears (1985)
Set in London, during the mid-eighties, My Beautiful Laundrette tells the story of the young and unemployed Omar Ali (played by Gordon Warnecke) and how he becomes the proprietor of a laundrette. Several themes are tackled during the film including homosexuality, class, family, money and economy, however the theme of race and racism is the most prevalent and the driving force of the movie.
From the opening scene it is obvious that we are in poverty stricken Britain. A sleeping Johnny (played by Daniel Day Lewis) is awoken and kicked out of a run down flat by some thugs. The viewer assumes the dingy dwelling is a squat and this aggressive and intimidating act can be seen as a precursor to the violence that is presented during the film, which reaches an apex in the final scenes.
The story centres on Johnny and how he is reintroduced to the young Asian man called Omar. They were friends in their youth, but their friendship ended when Omar's Father spotted Johnny at a National Front march. Johnny is now older and his racist past is behind him. This back-story is bestowed to the audience as the plot progresses and reveals how racial tensions between the Asian and white communities have developed in the years leading up to the setting of the film.
In contrast to the racial tension, Omar is a forgiving individual and looks to help Johnny by offering him a job. As their friendship progresses the two young men then enter a homosexual relationship which they attempt to conceal from Omar's family.
When we are introduced to Omar we are also introduced to his alcoholic Father - Hussein Ali (played by Roshan Seth). The setting is another bleak and run down flat. Beige and smoke stained wall paper further emphasise the discontent and present the viewer with a austere view of 1980's Britain. This viewpoint is underlined when Omar's Father attempts to get his son a job with Omar's Uncle - Nasser Ali (played by Saeed Jaffrey). Here we see the closeness of the Asian family and how they look out for one another, but also the lack of employment opportunities in times of austerity. References to high unemployment levels and the need for business prospects litter the film, painting a picture of discontent and bitterness.
My Beautiful Laundrette reaches its turning point when Omar and Johnny open up a refurbished laundrette that Nasser Ali has imparted to Omar. We see Omar and Johnny triumphing, despite the desolate backdrop of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. The laundrette itself is in contrast to setting of London the viewer is given; it is clean bright and shiny. Neon lights make the building standout and this is in stark contrast to the block of flats and the post war modernistic buildings that surround the launderette.
Although an important issue, Homosexuality is not given the same gravity or attention as race. The gay relationship is more implicit and the intimate moments occur behind closed doors and in the dark. However, this makes the homosexuality seem more forbidden and tainted, adding a degree of danger to the relationship between the two characters.
During the opening ceremony arranged for the laundrette, Johnny and Omar retreat to the back office and are concealed behind a one way mirror. Here they have sex, while we can see Omar's Uncle dancing within the laundrette with his mistress. This scene emphasises the absurdity of the suppression of Omar and Johnny's relationship. Nassir Ali can explicitly cheat on his wife, while two young men in love have to be discreet. When Nassir enters the back office to find the two men swiftly getting dressed, Omar instinctively states they were just sleeping. Nassir's expression shows he does not believe his Nephew and he ignores the issue.
Omar's father is constantly trying to find his son a wife, suggesting he is aware and concerned about his son's sexuality. This makes the sexual aspect of My Beautiful Laundrette feel like an elephant in the room, as opposed to a serious issue that needs to be tackled.
Costume and location firmly places My Beautiful Laundrette in 1980's London, however this is not a glamorous or regal London. There are no shots of Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament. Instead we see run down streets and arrogant and racist punks terrorising the Asian community. London appears as a city divided. The film however, is beautifully shot. If you were to take one single frame, there would be no denying what decade or even city you were in and this is conveyed through the urban setting and the then contemporary fashion styles.
Music plays a pivotal role and at times offer light relief to the drama. A musical motif of bubbles bursting in tuneful rhythm runs throughout the film and evokes images of the laundrette. This adds a comedic effect, but at times can be distracting when then drama takes a serious tone and the bubbles can be heard in the background.
Racial segregation is apparent throughout the film and explicitly stated within the dialogue. The Asian community constantly speak in almost tribal tones, with references to 'us' and 'them'. The street punks however are far less discreet and it is their direct approach that is the catalyst for the violent ending. Omar's cousin - Salim Ali (played by Derrick Branche), takes matters into his own hands and runs over one of the punks while in his car. The punk breaks his foot and he and his friends take revenge several days later by vandalising Salim's car. This starts a bloody fight, where Johnny shows his allegiance by helping Salim.
What makes My Beautiful Laundrette such an intriguing film as that many of the issues presented are very much at the forefront of life in Great Britain in 2013. The somewhat ambiguous and unsatisfying ending only goes to emphasise this, as the film itself could not find a conclusion to the problems that lie within.