My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Dir. Stephen Frears. Starring Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day-Lewis, Saeed Jaffrey

The character structure of My Beautiful Laundrette, written by Hanif Kureishi, is about as perfect as they come in movies. Hussein (Roshan Seth), Nasser (Jaffrey), and Hussein’s son, Omar (Warnecke) are each placed in conjunction with each other; they are the sides of the prism that Johnny (Day-Lewis) is refracted through. Frears’ direction is inoffensive and natural, and while his camera does not do a great deal to further the relationships, it does an adequate job of recording them. Hussein and Nasser are brothers. The former is sickly and dry, a radical leftist journalist who spends the vast majority of his screen time drinking in bed. Nasser is an energetic businessman, someone who looks positively at austerity as a political mantra and negatively as a personal code. Where Hussein’s bed is rumpled and belongs to him along, Nasser’s is large and seats others surrounding him, seeking his favor. (Three years earlier, Seth played an intellectual and pensive Nehru in Gandhi while Jaffrey, who looks and sounds just like Claude Rains to me, played a amused and omnipresent Patel. Hussein and Nasser – Pakistanis, not Indians – are those molds taken to extremes.) I’ve always enjoyed brothers who are so different; there’s a certain magnetism seeing such polar opposites and knowing that despite practically identical upbringings they’ve come to dissimilar conclusions. Certainly in Omar both of them reside, or at the very least they plant their idealism. At the beginning of the film, Hussein is pushing Omar to get a job before he goes to university, which of course is valuable to the father. His flaw is in getting Omar a job with Nasser, who probably could say “school of hard knocks” without giggling.

Their difference in opinion, roughly hewn to “academics versus capital,” ultimately favors neither. Salim (Derrick Branche) is beaten badly by some young fascists for the mere fact of his ethnicity; his money and his fancy car don’t protect him; on the other side, the representative of intellect has been too drunk and weak and sad to leave his bed for more than a few minutes at a time. Hussein’s hair is wild and sticks out at all angles and his toenails are pretty gross.

When he shows up at the laundromat (as I, in my ugly American vernacular, must refer to it) at 3:00 in the morning, perfectly coiffed and wearing a handsome outfit, it’s like a different person, some figure of the past, has come to scold Johnny for his racist past. In one scene towards the end of the movie, where Nasser comes to visit his ailing brother at his flat, we see them gently hash out their differences. Hussein feels a lack, and he has a wistfulness in him that one only needs to go onto socialist Twitter to see is characteristic of leftists. No matter how long he has been in England, home is thousands of miles away, on another continent entirely. Nasser, with the ironically meaningful word “sodomized,” describes how religion has torn apart their nation of origin. It’s too hard to make money there, he says, certainly compared with England. He characterizes the nation, knee-deep in skinheads and intolerance, as “a little heaven.” One hears some Blake in there in that most English of hymns: “And we shall build Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land.”

One subplot of the movie concerns Nasser’s relationship with his white mistress, Rachel, played by Shirley Anne Field. Frears doesn’t use long shots much in the film, but makes a strong decision when Rachel, chastised by Nasser’s daughter, breaks up with Nasser. She walks away from him while he tries to call her back. She was always representative of typical Englishness, but certainly more so for Nasser than the viewer. See how far away she is:

At any rate, if there’s a literary figure for Johnny, who is no fool but has no serious education, it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m not saying that simply because I read Fitzgerald into everything, either; he sees in Nasser, whose driveway is constantly full of cars and whose manor is constantly full of clingers-on who wouldn’t come if their host wasn’t so wealthy, Gatsby. At another moment, he wryly turns Omar’s words around about a ritzy laundrette to invoke, “A laundrette as big as the Ritz.” Fitzgerald’s boys who come into wealth never seem to put their whole hands around the gold nuggets; they find a nice girl and discover that she’s too classy for them to aspire to. At the end of the movie, the beautiful laundrette has taken trash cans to the clean, beautiful windows; like Dexter Green or George O’Kelly, Johnny is bossed around by Omar, who is as capricious as Judy Jones or Jonquil Cary. Both Omar and Hussein remember Johnny as a young boy and also remember his transformation as a racist thug. It’s not brought out what’s changed Johnny, who is implied to have a violent past. He is often photographed in a more submissive position compared to Omar, which is unexpected if for no other reason than Day-Lewis’ mien. The hair is not threatening or tough, precisely, but he’s constantly in a leather jacket and moves people without much trouble. He tells Omar, Nasser, and his onetime running mate Genghis (Richard Graham) that he’s not interested in fighting or foul play. He cannot avoid physical confrontations on behalf of or with all three of them.

With Nasser (and especially Salim, Nasser’s sort of slimy protege), Johnny is brusque. In his interactions with Salim, we see something of his old resentment of “Pakis,” and with Nasser he is simply gruff and unresponsive. Part of that doubtless has to do with the money they have and the discomfort that must bring on. Johnny is, for most of the movie, basically homeless. The pre-credits scene features him dragging Genghis out a window while they’re being chased out of a vacant building by bigger guys. “We’re moving house,” he says with that sardonic humor he bears on his back. To me, the most interesting relationship he has is the adversarial one he has with Hussein. It’s only one scene, but in it the elder man is not shy about chastising Johnny for his past decisions, for screaming epithets and threatening the Alis with other white supremacists. It seems like Johnny, who is temperamental and moody even on good days, would strike back. He’s drunk and he’s been chewed out by Omar just before, who went from having sex with Johnny to saying he’s engaged to Tania (Rita Wolf) within hours. Yet throughout the conversation he is deferential. He does not argue with Hussein, and in a predictive nod, he does not defend himself. He ends his sentences with “sir.” Something about Hussein’s obvious intelligence and way with words inspires respect in the young tough; maybe it’s the fact that Hussein is the only person who makes him feel guilty.

Omar, the obvious “both worlds” candidate in more ways than one, is the one most intimately connected with Johnny. Omar cannot speak Urdu, which surprises Salim’s wife; his diction is the diction of every other native Londoner his age. Omar is supposedly going to college, but he has a passion for business like Nasser and a willingness to dabble in illegality like Salim. And where Nasser sees Johnny as labor and Hussein sees him as a hoodlum – say what you will about it, but “hoodlum” is more human than “grunt” – Omar finds both. In his crueler moments, Omar pulls rank with Johnny and is the boss. In his gentler ones, it’s obvious that Omar is taken with his rediscovered childhood friend. They use Tania as a battleground to be passive-aggressive over. (When Tania gets on a train and disappears in front of her father’s eyes, it’s supposedly because she’s getting away from him; who could blame her if she’s leaving Omar and Johnny just as much?) The movie is surprisingly optimistic about the future the two of them can share between themselves despite the great gulf in their backgrounds. As Tania runs away from home, as Hussein and Nasser reminisce impotently, Omar and a beaten-up Johnny go into the back of their beaten-up laundrette and playfully splash each other with water. The optimism is splashed with acid, at least in terms of Thatcher’s Britain. How long will the two of them be able to splash each other with someone walking in and shrieking “Sodomites!” at them, one wonders. Five minutes? A fortnight? It can’t be long. Tania, for one, suspects, and while she’s sharper than the average person in My Beautiful Laundrette, others will doubtless catch on if Omar continues to rest his chin on Johnny’s bruised shoulder in full view of the street.

Frears is spot-on in the moment above, a shot which is a well done as any other in the movie. Nasser and Rachel are broken up not long after this, forced apart by shame. Omar and Johnny are not shamed apart in My Beautiful Laundrette, but the distinction is where the fault lines are. Nasser’s wife appears to have concocted an effective little curse which affects Rachel’s stomach even before Tania lashes her at the laundromat that afternoon. Rachel is shamed by bourgeois decency. Johnny and Omar are not broken apart by ethnic difference or class difference or historical difference; they will have the freedom to be broken apart, one day, by their personalities. The movie does not lead us to believe that the two of them will be happy together forever, for the two of them have a great many quarrels and fights. If there really is optimism at the end of the movie, it’s that the two of them will be able to break up and part ways because they turn out to be wrong for each other and not because someone else has to tell them they don’t match.

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