This film was screened at City Screen as part of the Criminal Acts: A Charged Past season, which is to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. There have been screenings of various films which highlight the gay experience in Britain, the latest being Stephen Frears’ 1985 drama My Beautiful Laundrette. This film follows Omar (Gordon Warnecke), an ambitious Asian Briton who tries to work his way up the social hierarchy of the time by running the titular laundrette with his lover Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis).
This film is notable for several reasons. One for its low key and un-sensationalised view of homosexuality, especially an interracial relationship during a turbulent time for race. It is also the film which launched the awards-snatching career of Daniel Day Lewis, and also the career of Stephen Frears (director of The Queen and Philomena).
It is difficult to categorise this film in terms of genre. There are elements of social comedy, gay drama, gangster film and racial parable within My Beautiful Laundrette, and they all swirl around like the clothes in the many washing machines inside. There isn’t much plot, but the film is instead a snapshot of a period in Omar’s life. Lots of things change for him, but in a lot of ways very little is different at the end.
Daniel Day Lewis is a marvel in this film. It’s no surprise but the man never puts a foot wrong. He is mesmerising in the role of Johnny and gives the film its heart and energy. He is the best physical actor in the world. The way he moves is incredible, and he gives every line depth and heart. He is the best thing in the film by a long way and was a superstar even at that point in his career.
This film is very similar to another superb film of this period, The Long Good Friday – the best British gangster film ever made, in my opinion, with one of the greatest film performances of all time from Bob Hoskins, and it also has the greatest last shot in cinema history and is a masterclass in acting and directing. It’s a film about how misjudged British nationalism can become – that the worst thing we can do as a nation is to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. Hoskins’ character Harold Shand sees himself as superior simply because he is British and pays the price for it. My Beautiful Laundrette shares a lot of the anti-Thatcher spirit of The Long Good Friday, and also shares the idea that only crime can get you ahead in Thatcher’s Britain. I would urge people to watch both of these films, as they seem more prescient and relevant now than ever.
Overall this film is a brilliantly unconventional and heartfelt film. It is uncompromising and explicit when it needs to be but has a tenderness and heart that keeps you engaged the whole way through. It paints a picture of a loving but hidden relationship that is constantly threatened by the social expectations of the time. Watch this film for its message and portrait of the early 1980s. It’s a lot of fun and features a sterling performance by Day Lewis. Beautiful? Yes, absolutely.