Saturday, January 23, 2016

#767: My Beautiful Laundrette

(Stephen Frears, 1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette has been on my "to-watch" list since I was 14 or so and first fell in love with The Grifters, still my favorite Stephen Frears film. I'm not sure why I never got around to it, although it may have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge Daniel Day Lewis fan (I know) and the idea of a movie about a laundrette in Thatcher's England doesn't exactly scream "Party!" Regardless, I was pleased to see it pop up on the Criterion release schedule, as I was once again compelled to finally get around to one of those movies you never seem to get around to.

Frears is a craftsman director, someone at his best when the underlying quality - script, performances, source material - is there. He does a great job of not screwing up what shouldn't be screwed up - The Grifters comes from a great book with perfect casting and a tight script, for example. The Queen gets by entirely on the backs of Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen, who are both impeccable in a largely forgettable film. Dangerous Liasons belongs to John Malkovich. But his worst films are bad because he is unable to transcend the mediocre qualities that are already present at conception: Mary Reilly puts Julia Roberts in a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde alternate telling. The Program takes a true story with Shakespearean potential and turns it into an HBO docudrama. Everything about Lay the Favorite.

My Beautiful Laundrette is one of the good ones because the script puts us in a world that is so fascinating and little seen. 80s London is a setting rich in potential for drama (or comedy for that matter), and the film weaves together a broad range of people to play in that world. The story touches on class, sexuality, crime, politics, family, immigration, and coming of age - there are probably five separate movies in here that have been mashed into one. It holds together, though, because it paints the world so vividly that none of the notes seem false or forced where they don't belong. Frears is the perfect kind of director for this material because he only brings as much style and interpretation to his films as the work demands, and here he mostly lets the two leads grab on and steer us through the storm.

Of course, Daniel Day Lewis is the most notable cast member here, and arguably the most notable thing about the movie. He does well, though the movie is really Omar's, and it's mostly an impressive performance because we know both how he is in real life and how he comes across in other roles. I wish there was less smugness to the way he plays Johnny here, but I appreciate his dedication to the accent.

This is a movie that belongs in the Collection, even if it's not a classic or near classic, because it's unique in both setting and subject and helped trigger a whole host of similar films in the next fifteen years (interestingly, this is the first Working Title film). As a quirky character study, it sits nicely next to the Mike Leigh and Aki Kaurismäki films in the Collection, though both are significantly more of an artist than Frears. But the added political and social context makes it stand alone.

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