My Beautiful Laundrette

My Beautiful Laundrette ★★★½

An inventive, well constructed and touching middle finger to the vision Margaret Thatcher had for England. 

My Beautiful Laundrette delves deeply into the Pakistani immigrant experience in Thatcher’s London from a few different and fascinating angles. There is a definite spotlight put on the schism between not only first and second generation immigrants to the country, but also between two first generation brothers with different approaches. There is a touching scene between Omar’s father and uncle later in the film where they have a frank discussion about how their lives have played out that plumbs the thematic depths of the movie without crossing the line into straight up exposition that is noteworthy. We see what the process of attempting integration does to the dreams, values and ideals of those who want to make a better life for their families. 

The film follows Omar,  a second generation immigrant who cares for his alcoholic father, formerly a journalist in Bombay. His uncle has become financially successful (through less than licit means) and offers Omar the opportunity to run a laundrette for him, earn some money and build a better life. In order to do this he enlists his friend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), a not quite former skinhead to help run the place. They quickly become more than friends. 

The basic plot is not really the most important thing here . It really acts as a jumping off point to examine all kinds of social issues from a sympathetic point of view. Marginalization is looked at through multiple lenses. The skinheads are always circling and lurking around the laundrette, their presence exuding menace even when they are neutral. On a few occasions they are even helpful to Johnny, though we always feel the tension bubbling and are aware that the situation can go sideways at any point and that violence is always only a bigot’s impulse away. The charged atmosphere feels constantly terrifying and more than little hopeless. They hate Omar for being a foreigner and they hate Johnny for his relationship with him. 

Aside from the homophobia and racism Omar and Johnny face, there is also the constant pull of classism. One of the more interesting elements about the film is that Johnny faces this from Omar’s family. He is clearly looked down on by Omar’s uncle and cousin Salim for not having money. It’s a clever way to have Johnny share in the feeling of being unwelcome and distrusted and goes a long way to building his bond with Omar. It is the inclusion of extra layers like this that add so much depth to the narrative and make it feel authentic despite the fact that it is somewhat fantastical in its construction. 

The score is fantastic and Frears makes some editing choices that are admirable in their audaciousness (although not always entirely successful). This is a slick and stylish movie on the right side of a lot of social issues that reinforces my opinion that Stephen Frears deserves a higher place in the pantheon of top tier directors than he is usually credited with. This one is well worth a look.

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