A working-class couple turns a run-down launderette into a thriving business. My Beautiful Laundrette features a strong ensemble and a star-making performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. The simple plot allows writer Hanif Kureishi and director Stephen Frears to examine the race and class conflicts in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The audience is left wrestling with the moral dilemmas that these characters shrugged off. It’s a clever film that has aged very well. There’s a lot to unpack but let us begin with a spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Opportunity
“It was the first time jokes about Mrs. Thatcher had been made in the cinema and they got huge laughs.” ~ Director Stephen Frears
Scene One: Omar’s Home
SOCIALIST DAD: I hate Thatcher’s Britain! Go to college son.
OMAR: Dad, you’re drunk
CAPITALIST UNCLE: Forget college Omar. I’ll put you in charge of one of my laundrettes.
Scene Two: London Streets
JOHNNY and GANG: You Pakistanis are putting white blokes out of work!
OMAR: Johnny? What are you doing here? Come work for me.
JOHNNY: Oi! It’s me ex! (Johnny licks Omar’s face.)
Scene Three: Cousin’s Home
DRUG DEALING COUSIN: Your laundromat is a dump. (Steps on Omar’s face.)
OMAR: I can sell drugs too, jerk! A little extra cash will spruce the place up.
Act Two: Success
Scene Four: Laundrette
OMAR: Johnny… why were you with a fascist gang?
JOHNNY: I don’t wanna fink about the past. I’m wiv you now.
OMAR: Come on Daniel. We all you know written a backstory in your method actor journal.
JOHNNY: The film doesn’t have time for it and you can probably guess the basics. Let’s shag.
CAPITALIST UNCLE: Knock! Knock! We’re here for the grand re-opening!
MISTRESS: They’ve done wonders with the place. Dance with me?
(Uncle and his Mistress dance in one room, while Omar and Johnny make love in another)
Scene Five: Love Triangle
CAPITALIST UNCLE: Stop buggering and marry my daughter!
JOHNNY: Marry her and we’re done.
OMAR: Sass me and you’re fired.
CAPITALIST UNCLE’s DAUGHTER: I don’t want any of you. (Leaves town.)
Act Three: Cross Roads
Scene Six: London Streets
DRUG DEALING COUSIN: You stole my drugs to pay for this place. You owe me.
OMAR: I’ll rob some houses for you. I have no scruples.
DRUG DEALING COUSIN: Forget crime. I want shares in your business. But I won’t take any guff from that local gang.
(Drug Dealing Cousin hits a gang member with his car.)
GANG: Oi! There’ll be none of that!
(Gang attacks Drug Dealing Cousin. Johnny rescues the Cousin. Omar rescues Johnny. Gang breaks the launderette window and flees.)
Scene Seven: Laundrette
JOHNNY: That could have ended badly. This could have been just another sad gay movie. (Splashes Omar with water.)
OMAR: Yet here we are. Cleaning our wounds and being adorable. (Splashes Johnny with water.)
“[T]he filmmakers intend to treat you like an adult who understands that absolutism, of even an idealistic bent, is the indulgence of a fool.” ~ Slant Magazine
At first it seems Omar must choose between his father’s idealism and his uncle’s hedonism. But then he learns they’re both supported by his ruthless cousin’s drug money. Omar never wrestles with his conscience. He wants financial independence by any means necessary. A different story would punish him but Thatcherism rewards ruthlessness. Omar may lack a moral compass but he has a heart. That heart belongs to Johnny.
When Daniel Day-Lewis is on screen he dominates the frame. Neither Omar, nor director Stephen Frears, can take their eyes off of him. Johnny could have been a macho braggart. Day-Lewis keeps his cards to his chest. Johnny’s gang and Omar’s family try to separate the lovers. Johnny won’t let go. Omar waffles but when he sees Johnny’s in danger he leaps to his defense. It’s not the healthiest relationship but they’ve got a stronger bond than anyone else in the film.
The 2019 stage adaptation suggests that Omar and Johnny become lovers after opening the launderette. That adds stakes to the relationship but in the film the relationship is not the focus. Having them rekindle an old flame gets a lot of backstory and angst out of the way so that they can focus on Omar’s pursuit of wealth.
A sentimental movie would turn the launderette into a welcoming place that brings the local community together. Here it goes from grungy to sterile with the same clients. Will it turn a profit or will Omar be completely reliant on drug money? This is an unusual film and well worth seeing.
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