A review requested by CJ, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Released perfectly in the middle of the 1980s, during a period when British filmmaking was undergoing some dramatic growing pains, My Beautiful Laundrette is something like the focal point for all of that growth. It is the breakthrough feature for no fewer than four major names in British cinema going forward: it was the first screen credit for writer Hanif Kureishi, and thrust him into the role of one of the nation's most prominent young authors, working in multiple forms; it was the first production of any meaningful size or visibility made by Working Title Films, which spent the 1980s and even moreso the 1990s as one of the pre-eminent names in thoughtful indie film production on both sides of the Atlantic; it catapulted to sudden prominence director Stephen Frears, who'd made two features and several TV projects over the course of 14 years as a solid but unremarkable workaday talent; and it is one of two films released in the span of a few months that demanded everybody take notice of the remarkable 28-year-old actor Daniel Day-Lewis. More abstractly, it's one of the key films in the establishment of a new incarnation of the "kitchen sink realism" tradition of the 1960s, revised to address the economic and social turmoil of Thatcherite Britain; and it's the movie whose success and acclaim are more or less solely responsible for encouraging a generation of British Asian filmmakers to start telling their own stories.

Happily, My Beautiful Laundrette is a good enough movie to mostly live up to the weight of all that historical importance. It's not free of this or that miscalculation in the direction or tiny patchwork in the screenwriting, and it's knocked a little out of balance by the odd wrinkle that, in a movie bursting at the seams with phenomenal performances of beautifully-written, the lead actor is the weak link. Mostly, however, it lives up to every expectation one could hold for it; Day-Lewis especially is an astounding marvel. I have little doubt that the immediate explosion of his critical reputation owes mostly to the enormous contrast between his performance here and in A Room with a View (the films were released on the same day in New York in March, 1986, which led to some very enthusiastically stunned reviews), but even without that film, I like to suppose that what he's up to in this film would have been enough by itself to secure him "most promising newcomer" status.

It's not his film, although the opening scene depicts his character Johnny living as a squatter in an abandoned house with fellow punk skinheads until the cops come to throw them out. Instead, My Beautiful Laundrette is mostly the story of Omar (Gordon Warnecke), the English-born son of a Pakistani journalist named Hussein (Roshan Seth). Hussein has been drinking himself to a premature grave ever since his wife's death, and by the time the movie starts up, he relies on Omar to take care of him entirely. To ensure his son has some kind of stable future, Hussein reaches out to his brother Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), an entrepreneur who has committed to the white English system of ethics well enough to have made a success at Thatcher-era capitalism, while remaining tied to his roots enough to acutely hat everything about the English. Omar quickly impresses his uncle, and is rewarded by being handed the management of an underperforming laundrette. Nasser is also pushing Omar towards a marriage with his daughter Tania (Rita Wolf).

If that were all the farther that My Beautiful Laundrette went, it would still have everything it needed to be an excellent seriocomic character drama about life in the London Pakstani community at a time when it was cinematic terra incognita. Warnecke is a bit too much of a blank slate (and later, when he starts to enjoy success with his laundrette, a bit too one-note in his portrayal of nouveau riche satisfaction), but he's good enough not to do any damage to Kureishi's smart, closely-observed writing. The figures swirling around Omar - Nasser, Tania, Hussein, the drug trafficker Salim (Derrick Branche) - are all specific enough in detail that it's not much of a problem that they're all kind of stock types. Nasser in particular falls into a remarkable sweet spot between "racist caricature of striving Pakistani businessman" and "precisely-shaped vision of a specific set of motivations expressed in very exacting terms that suggest Kureishi's finely-honed sense of people", and Jaffrey's blustering performance does a great deal to draw that out even more. There's warmth, delicate humor, and a wonderful offhand realism that go into making a deeply satisfying portrayal of a specific culture at a specific time and in a specific economic context.

But this is not all the farther that My Beautiful Laundrette goes. In case you'd forgotten about Day-Lewis's career-making turn, Johnny shows up one night early in Omar's time with Nasser, leading a gang of skinhead thugs in harassing a car full of Pakistanis. This comes to an abrupt stop when Johnny spots, and then recognises Omar: they were friends during adolescence, before Omar went to college, and are both immediately eager to pick up where they left off. Omar hires Johnny as his second-in-command at the laundrette, and soon thereafter, they've become lovers - or perhaps have returned to being lovers; the film is deliberately vague on what their relationship looked like once upon a time. At any rate, both men have clear and therefore unstated reasons for wanting to keep a mixed-race same-sex romantic relationship hidden away from prying eyes. This is not, in the end, a plot-driving tension; in fact, it's kind of astonishing for a film from 1985 to treat homosexuality with such little emphasis. They love each other, they get together, they support each other - the fissure in their relationship, if there is one, is Johnny's violent, racist past.

That's two hot-button issues: three, if you count the film's class consciousness, and you should, though it's no more heavily emphasised than its sexual progressiveness. The story takes place in an environment that has been lambasted by the conservative economic policies of the 1980s, and every important character (other than maybe Tania) is partially if not chiefly viewed in terms of their relationship to that economy. Moreover, the only two romantic relationships we see in the film - between Omar and Johnny, and between Nasser and his white mistress Rachel (Shirley Anne Field) - are partially transactional: Omar is Johnny's boss, Rachel fully owns the fact that she's not in a position to be economically self-sufficient without a well-off man who loves her. This latter point comes out in a truly surprising and beautiful line delivery when Tania and Rachel square off: in a moment that feels tailor-made for a shouting match, Field delivers the climax of their fight with a sad tremor, borne out of pure existential terror. It also can't possibly be an accident that in both of these relationships, the economic subordinate is the white person (Rachel and Johnny are the only two white people of any real importance in the film). That dynamic isn't given quite the attention it deserves, but there's so much going on in My Beautiful Laundrette that it's not a very noticeable absence. If there's anything the script skips over that's actually a problem, it's Kureishi's failure to dig into the ramifications of how Johnny feels about being his boyfriend's employee; as it is, it feels almost obviously not discussed, and the apparent parallel with the Nasser/Rachel relationship is left underdeveloped.

Still, this is a meaty film with much on its mind, and a gratifying refusal to spell it out for us in little bite-sized messages when it can just as well demonstrate things through its plot and let us figure out what this has to say about English racism, '80s homophobia, and Thatcherism. Instead of didacticism, the main energy of the film is dedicated instead to not-quite-comedy in the context of a plot that's practically realism, but with just airy enough that it's more pleasant to watch than anything.

Frears directs all of this with a light touch, but not an invisible one: there are enough unexpected compositions and angles that we could never accuse this of being a simple act of setting up the cameras for the actors to recite the script. There's a startling, perfect shot of Omar and Johnny having sex in the laundrette office while behind them, through a one-way mirror, we can see Rachel and Nasser waltzing among the washing machines; sometimes, the action is at a little bit of a remove from the camera, giving the characters a respectful amount of space. For such a literate script with such a plain-looking aesthetic, a fair amount of work is done by the camera to let us know what's going unspoken, and the dynamic between Johnny and Omar is constantly tweaked by positioning one of them closer to the viewer or farther away. He also films the Powders Laundrette itself as something of a magic castle, soft blue neon standing out in the glum surroundings like a cheerful beacon of hope - as it indeed is to all of the characters.

There are limitations to Frears's aesthetic: the film began its life as a Channel Four production for television, with the decision to give it a theatrical release coming after it had already been completed, and the lack of resources shows: it was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, and for all the good it does the film's realistic aesthetic, one can't help wishing that there was a little bit more latitude in the stock at certain points. It was also, clearly, not a luxurious post-production: the first several minutes of the film are hastily cut and elliptical in a way that nothing else in the film ever is; perhaps this isn't the result of a lack of funding, but just a case of a screenplay taking too many shortcuts, or a director who couldn't quite figure out how a sequence was going to flow. And as long as I'm taking exception to the movie's flaws, I really dislike its score, credited to "Ludus Tonalis", the team-up of Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer. It's often emotionally pushy, even more often emotionally inappropriate, and it features a goofy "washing machine" sound effect that gets trotted out too many times, granting that even once was too many times.

Granting all that, My Beautiful Laundrette is clearly a triumph in most ways, one of the stand-out films of British cinema's new social awareness and drive for realism in the 1980s. It's quite easy to tell, just by watching it, how deeply committed everyone involved was to the story, the setting, and the characters, and whatever imperfections burble up, it never fails to be moving, and even enjoyable. Would that all socially relevant cinematic documents were also such good movies!