Set in 1980s London, My Beautiful Laundrette is the story of Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young British Asian who begins working for his crooked uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey). He soon finds himself running a laundrette, with the help of his schoolfriend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis).
If that doesn’t sound like much of a plot, that’s because there isn’t much of a plot. But this 1985 drama is nonetheless thematically and environmentally rich. The backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain is always prominent, with racial, sexual and class tensions bubbling beneath the surface like laundry detergent. The issue of immigration, which director Stephen Frears would go on to explore further in Dirty Pretty Things, feels particularly relevant 30 years on, at a time when Tories are warning us about a supposed invasion of Romanians sleeping and shitting all over the place.
Some of the acting is lacklustre and the story predictable, the whole thing much less powerful than something like This Is England. But Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi clearly care about these characters, making My Beautiful Laundrette admirably affectionate. The film also feels a little like a gangster movie, albeit on a much smaller scale and with Pakistanis instead of Italians.
It’s like if Scarface ran a laundrette. Omar’s character development feels like a small fraction of Al Pacino’s, and Warnecke has a similar combination of likeability and instability in the lead role. Jaffrey’s performance is strong too, even if he looks like an Asian Matt Berry. Oh and there’s some young bloke called Daniel Day-Lewis, not sure what happened to him.
This is a grounded and caring drama, which is perhaps more effective as a critique of Thatcherism than as a narrative. But this makes it politically interesting and relevant, and makes you wonder why Frears went on to make The Queen. Why?