Stephen Frears has created an extraordinary body of work over five decades, but it has two very distinct periods. The first comprises the great work he did in the mid-’80s, starting with The Hit and up to 1990’s The Grifters and his run of films at the turn of the century, with High Fidelity being the most well-loved from that era. He is still making critically and commercially successful films to this day, such as Philomena and Foster Florence Jenkins, but they lack the touch of his best work.
During the ’70s and ’80s, like most British directors of his generation, Frears worked extensively on TV with his sole feature-film credit the detective spoof Gumshoe. He didn’t direct another feature till his extraordinary British gangster The Hit with Terrence Stamp, Tim Roth and John Hurt, which is such a stunning piece of work that even the dreadful music from Eric Clapton and Roger Waters is somewhat bearable.
My Beautiful Laundrette is the film that made Frears a sensation within the British film industry, and it also became a big arthouse hit in the US. It’s a scathing indictment of Thatcher’s Britain in 1985, with both the white and Pakistani lead characters falling under the spell of that witch. However, the film is essentially about two young men: the British-Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and his friend and eventual lover Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) who team up to open a laundrette after Omar’s uncle gives him a chance to manage it. They were friends at school and possibly had a romantic spark then, but they drifted apart. When Omar next sees Johnny he is the leader of a fascist street punk gang, but they are willing to put their differences aside after Omar gives him a job.
Given the Brexit result of last year and the re-emergence of extreme right-wing politics, this re-release of My Beautiful Laundrette seems very apt. It perfectly sums up the xenophobic policies that have developed since Thatcher’s government then and resulted in Thatbot May’s government today, but it also sprinkles it with hope that in the end we may be able to overcome our differences. The script, by the famous British-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, is deliciously subversive. Not only does he paint a realistic picture of Pakistanis at the pinnacle of Thatcherism, he presents a completely matter-of-fact gay relationship. It was actually the first film to openly depict a gay romance in British cinema.
Originally, the film was meant to be released on the then relatively new Channel 4. However, after an extraordinary response to a screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival it was deemed good enough for a theatrical run. It ended up being a massive success at home and a surprise hit in the US. Daniel Day-Lewis is, of course, great in the film, but it came out the same day as A Room in the View over there. The range he showed in the two films basically made him a star overnight. Gordon Warnecke is equally great as Omar, but it never translated to the career Day-Lewis has had. Still, he has worked steadily in British TV ever since, with some film work in between small-screen roles.
BFI’s release boasts a strong restoration job that really brings out the quality of Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography. The release includes an audio Q&A that plays as a commentary track over the film, an appreciation from Gordon Warnecke, and a feature-length documentary from Frears about the British films that have influenced him. The other two features are a documentary from Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham fame about being Asian and British in the ’80s and a short film about racism from Prathiba Parma.