My Beautiful Laundrette
Starring: Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day-Lewis, Saeed Jaffrey
Written by: Hanif Kureishi
Directed by: Stephen Frears
How good is this movie?
Oh, man, do I have thoughts about this movie! There’s a lot going on in the story, which tackles race, class, and sexuality in a nuanced and interesting way. It starts with a fairly simple premise: a young man must choose between loyalty to his socialist father and the promise of wealth offered by his capitalist uncle. But it’s also about the experience of being Pakistani while living in England. It’s about getting rich while others are poor. And it’s about being gay in a society where homosexuality is still taboo. All of these issues are presented in interesting ways that avoid clichés and stereotypes. Unfortunately, having so many narrative elements means that they can’t all be adequately developed. Many of the central conflicts aren’t so much resolved as forgotten about, and the movie ends without giving us a satisfying conclusion.
In terms of the characters, Johnny is probably its greatest strength while Omar is its biggest weakness. Daniel Day-Lewis gives an electric performance as Johnny, but Omar seems to float through his scenes with a vapid smile. Despite being the protagonist, we get little sense of interiority from him. He rarely struggles with any strong emotions or makes any difficult choices. In fact, it’s hard to see why the other characters are so invested in him – except that, as his family’s only son, he’s become the repository for all their hopes and dreams.
How ace is this movie?
Among many other things, this movie is a love story about Omar and Johnny. As movie romances go, their relationship is not a conventional one. It is definitely a sexual relationship, since Omar and Johnny are lovers. It is also an economic relationship, since Johnny is working for Omar. But it is, more than anything else, a friendship. Omar asks for Johnny’s help as a friend; the fact that he pays him feels incidental. Similarly, the fact that they are having sex doesn’t define the relationship; they come off more like friends who happen to have sex than romantic partners. That’s not to say that the two aren’t very much in love; it’s just that the movie doesn’t present sexual love and friendship as two discrete or mutually exclusive things.
Despite the film’s mid-’80s setting, Omar and Johnny never face any overt homophobia; the violence they encounter is always – at least ostensibly – connected to race or class. That said, heteronormativity is an inescapable part of the surrounding culture. Omar’s father asks Nasser to “fix Omar up with a nice girl”, and Nasser practically orders Omar to marry Tania. And the boys are careful to hide their relationship from most of their friends and family members.
At its best, I quite like their dynamic; indeed, if I seem critical of the movie, it’s only because I found the relationship so compelling and wanted so badly to love it. But there are also darker moments in the relationship that speak to an underlying disconnect. And, like the rest of the movie, it never quite resolves in a satisfying way. The movie seems to be building to a climax where either Johnny must choose between Omar and his principles, or Omar must choose between Johnny and his business. But this moment never comes; the characters simply continue on as they have been.
Part of the issue is that the movie is blending two very different story ideas. On the one hand is a Duddy Kravitz/Godfather-type story about a young man trying to make his business successful. On the other hand is a more Romeo and Juliet-style narrative about lovers attempting to bridge the divide between feuding communities. And it’s not that those two stories couldn’t combine well, but in this case they seem to crowd each other out, and neither gets developed the way it should. If Johnny is the Kay to Omar’s Michael, he never seems to get to the disillusionment Kay experiences at the end of The Godfather. And if Omar is the Juliet to Johnny’s Romeo, he never seems willing to commit to the relationship with a whole-hearted “Be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet”-level of devotion.
Nominally, the film gets a happy ending, and I don’t want to be dismissive of that. The movie ends with the two gay heroes alive, together, and in love. As a piece of queer cinema, especially one from 1985, that’s very significant. But, as a love story, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the relationship – ultimately because the most important thing in Johnny’s life is Omar, while the most important thing in Omar’s life is being successful.
Any other thoughts?
But what I really want to talk about in this movie is a theme I’ve been focused on a lot recently: identity and the search for belonging. “Everyone has to belong”, Genghis says to Johnny, and Cherry gives similar advice to Omar: “People should make up their minds what they are.” Both the main characters find themselves caught between different communities. Omar is Pakistani by ancestry but was born in England and has never been to Pakistan. Johnny is a white Englishman who was befriended in his youth by Pakistanis. Omar’s father is a left-leaning intellectual who wants him to go to college, though he himself has fallen into poverty and alcoholism. Johnny was raised to believe that white people were the lords of his country, but has since seen thousands of white people lose their jobs while immigrants have gotten rich. Both seek to lift themselves out of poverty, and in both cases this means crossing cultural boundaries. For Omar, it means embracing the entrepreneurial spirit of Thatcherite England; for Johnny it means working for immigrants.
Of course, the most transgressive thing Omar and Johnny have is their relationship with each other. The relationship is transgressive, not only because it is homosexual, but also because both characters refuse to let racial loyalty get in the way of it. Omar continues to call Johnny his friend, despite his father’s anger towards Johnny. Johnny stays with Omar in spite of his white friends’ disgust. At its most hopeful, the movie seems to imply that both Omar and Johnny are able to transcend the barriers of race and class and find true belonging with each other.
That does not mean racial tensions do not enter into the relationship. Omar feels a lot of pain about Johnny’s racist history, as he reveals to Johnny just before the laundrette’s opening. This is the most touching and vulnerable scene in the movie, and one of the few moments where Omar shows real emotional depth. Johnny’s response, to start kissing him, feels inappropriate, as though he thinks he can simply shag away all the pain he caused Omar and his family. But he does also acknowledge what he has done and promise to be better in the future.
This seems to offer the hope that reconciliation may be possible – at least on the individual level. Johnny may be a white person with a racist history, but he is not limited by his whiteness or even his past racism; he can choose to move beyond them and experience community across racial lines. In practice, however, this is not so simple. Johnny may apologise to Omar, but he never puts in the effort to reconcile with Omar’s dad. And Omar is not above gloating over the fact that a former white nationalist is now his employee.
And choosing not to be racist does not free Johnny from the constraints of racial identity. As he gets drawn into Omar’s family, he is constantly reminded of his otherness. Nasser seems to relish the idea of getting a white person to do his dirty work, and happily hires Johnny to help him evict squatters from his buildings. This is an uncomfortable role for Johnny, who is himself a squatter and was recently evicted by Nasser’s colleague Salim. It also highlights a different side of Johnny’s identity: one of the working poor who were pushed out of their jobs by the same government that enabled others to become rich. In working for Nasser, Johnny isn’t just refusing to be loyal to his own race; he’s becoming part of a system that oppresses other poor people. This gives all of Johnny’s actions a dual significance. His renunciation of racial prejudice is a good thing, but his lack of class solidarity is less admirable. Johnny feels the tension between these two things and an increasing ambivalence about the choices he has made. For him, it seems there is no way to act rightly.
At the end of the movie, Salim is attacked by Genghis and his gang, and Johnny comes to his rescue. It’s a scene that plays very differently depending on what lens you’re viewing it through. Viewed in terms of race, Johnny has gone from being a fascist chanting racist slogans to defending Pakistanis from racist attackers. However, from a class perspective, Johnny has gone from being an unemployed squatter getting evicted from his home to getting paid to evict other squatters and defending his former landlord from his former friends.
The movie doesn’t seem to offer a clear way out of this dilemma. Omar’s father suggests that what is needed is an enlightened class solidarity, and he encourages Omar and Johnny to follow in his footsteps. But Mr Ali is not exactly the most attractive role-model. His attitude towards the working classes is tinged with snobbery. It is also unclear whether he would accept Omar and Johnny’s relationship if he knew about it.
In any case, Omar’s trajectory throughout the movie is away from identification with his father and towards involvement with his uncle. For him and Johnny, the priority is pursuing wealth by any means necessary – up to and including criminal activity. It may be morally questionable, but it offers them both the promise of financial security and the freedom to maintain their relationship. The identity issue, like so much else, is left unresolved, and the movie doesn’t have any answers. But at least it asks some interesting questions.
3 Stars; 3 Aces