My Beautiful Laundrette Review
Modern Britain is a thing of beauty. I am not patriotic or anything, but I take pride in the fact that Britain is a progressive, tolerant, multicultural society, a melting pot of different ideas and perspectives, and it shows in our cinema. We have critically acclaimed films like Bend It Like Beckham and Dirty Pretty Things that deal with issues of second generation Asian communities and immigrants living in the United Kingdom. These stories are not always smooth sailing and the tragedy is that the tales often include bigotry and violence. One of the films that perfectly encapsulates the tensions between white and non-white parts of British society is Stephen Frears' 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette being released by the BFI on Blu-ray this August.
Omar, a young Pakistani man living in the South of London, takes care of his elderly alcoholic father. That is until his uncle gives him a job running a laundrette. However, he needs help in renovating the dilapidated building and funds with which to do it. So he hires Johnny, an old friend from school, and together they steal drug money from an associate of Omar's Uncle, Saleem. However, it is not smooth sailing for the pair as Oman is constantly reminded of Britain's intolerance toward him and his family, he and Johnny get involved romantically and Saleem threatens them with using their laundrette to launder his ill-gotten gains.
Upon its release, My Beautiful Laundrette was received with overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. It still has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes despite being released over 30 years ago. It kickstarted the careers of two of the leading lights in British Film, its director Stephen Frears and infamous method actor Daniel Day Lewis. It deals with highly sensitive topics racism, the problems with integration, tradition and modernity, queer issues, criminal undercurrents, all heavy subjects that are in need of addressing and exploring.
However, the thing is that despite the good that the film stands for it's not technically a very good film. I don't want to be that guy, but I feel like I have to be. I understand that both the LGBT+ community and non-caucasian British communities have an issue with underrepresentation and we need more movies that deal with their problems and experiences. I also understand that My Beautiful Laundrette was perhaps one of the first films that dealt with these complex relationships between white and Asian communities. But I know that it is a TV movie and it shows, in its acting, in its script, its cinematography, its music and in its design.
The cinematography feels sluggish, there is no real flow to the film and it feels stagnant, like water left in a plastic bottle for too long. Close-ups feel out of place, framing feels off and everything about it just seems a bit awkward. This coupled with a gloopy synth soundtrack that would fit better in an old episode of Doctor Who makes it feel almost unintentionally comical.
This awkward, stilted feel carries over to the performances. Daniel Day-Lewis is known for his commitment to a role and shines in most of the work that he has done. Here he is probably the best actor in the cast, but that really isn't saying much. Johnny is an interesting character, a gay fascist working for his lover, a Pakistani man, Omar. He must contend with his feelings, his old gang mates and his lover’s family. On paper he sounds interesting, as does every other character: Omar is a young man finding his place in the world, his father is a leftist alcoholic and his uncle is a criminal businessman. However, when it comes to the performances Omar, played by Gordon Warnecke, his father Hussein, played by Roshan Seth and Uncle Naseer played by Saeed Jaffrey, the latter two both legends in the Indian-British acting community, are played badly, even by these excellent actors.
I am not sure whether this stilted acting is the result of the director Stephen Frears or a theatrical script by Hanif Kureishi. But there are odd pauses, strange emphases and weird word choices that make every single interaction seem unnatural and fake. I remember thinking as I was watching it that this seemed like a poorly adapted stage play that had some scenes ripped out of the main plot without anything done to lessen the choppy nature of the story. There are sudden changes in relationships and in situation that feel like they come out of nowhere. It was quite distracting from the important messages that I know the filmmakers wanted to talk about.
This opinion may have been biased due to the films that have come after. Maybe it is unfair to judge what was originally a made for TV movie as an actual theatrical release, but it was a theatrical release, so I must look at it that way. Though when watching it with someone who saw it at the time it was released and remembered liking it agrees that it has not aged well at all. This is a film where the content of it is more important than the form. My Beautiful Laundrette is a film that I can appreciate for its historical importance but as a movie, a piece of shot film it doesn't stand the test of time.
Regardless of my opinion, the BFI have done a reasonable job with this Blu-ray release. The film runs well in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with a 1080p resolution that while it doesn't have any digital errors itself does not help the well-aged look of the film, pointing out imperfections and poor quality of the stock the original film was shot on. The PCM 1.0 mono sound track also makes the original soundtrack sound even stranger. Though the BFI do a good job in remastering this film for a high definition viewing experience, maybe they shouldn't have because now we can really see the film’s flaws under the microscope. They don't do such a good job in setting up the menu of the disc, which while easy to navigate is overly simple, like something out of the early days of DVD rather than something from the high point of Blu Ray.
The BFI has also packed a bunch of extras in with the film, dealing with Stephen Frears, issues of Britishness and British cinema. There are Q&A documentaries and short films galore that run to over twice the length of the film allowing for a greater exploration of the themes brought up by this film.
Overall I was disappointed with My Beautiful Laundrette; it is an important film in regards to who was in it and what it was trying to say about 1980s British society. However, as a film is was incredibly weak and awkward. This carries over to the disc and while it has a lot extras that delve further into the areas the film addresses, the menu quality and the high definition just exaggerate the film’s flaws.