The titles of "My Beautiful Laundrette" (opening Friday at Cineplex Beverly Center) whirl onscreen like the spin-dry cycle at the corner washeteria, with a whimsical gurgling gulp.
With this cheerfully offhand opening, and in alternately shabby and tackily elegant surroundings in South London, director Stephen Frears catches us unaware.
Nothing prepares us adequately for the cool of his screenwriter, 29-year-old Hanif Kureishi, nor for the audacity, complexity and depth of his themes.
What he tears apart for our inspection are the lives of the Pakistanis in Britain today--still "immigrants" to their simmering and largely ungracious host country, "Pakis," even though their second-generation British-born children are now well into their 20s. Ingenuously, Kureishi mixes race, class, caste, sexuality, politics and the long shadow of Empire (no matter how moth-eaten it may be at the edges) into an irresistible contemporary satirical romance.
Frears, who made the endearing "Gumshoe" years back, "The Hit" just last year and a string of fine, cheaply made films for British television in between, has cast "Laundrette" marvelously and given it vitality, directness and astonishing reverberations.
This tightly knit South London clan, old and highly placed in Pakistan, is headed by two brothers, sentimental as Russians when it comes to matters of family. Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) is rich, raffish and genially corrupt. (The familiar Jaffrey is most quickly recognized as Billy Fish in "The Man Who Would Be King" or Professor Godbole in "A Passage to India.") At his big, noisy mixed parties, in addition to the omnipresent Aunties and Nasser's restless, angry daughter Tania (Rita Wolf), there's always an all-male salon in which he entertains wittily, reclining on his daybed like a figure in an Indian miniature painting. His diverse interests include garages, launderettes, drugs, slum apartments and his beloved Rachel (Shirley Anne Field), his soft-eyed English mistress "d'une certain age."
Nasser's left-leaning, impoverished brother, called only Papa, has not been able to surmount the wrenching relocation to England or his wife's recent suicide. (He's played by Roshan Seth, "Gandhi's" elegant, thoughtful Nehru.) Author, journalist, intellectual, intimate of presidents and premiers at home, he is now a reclusive, semi-bedridden alcoholic in a flat that rattles with each passing railway train. Still clinging to education as the only tool of change, he is adamant that his only child, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), go to college in the fall, but in the meantime do something other than clean ineffectually and fuss over his father.
And so, a call to Nasser, whose all-embracing welcome unintentionally changes the boy's life. From polishing cars and doing Nasser's accounts, Omar becomes a guest at his uncle's parties, then persuades Nasser to let him have a hand running a broken-down, scuzzy launderette.
To help with the dirty work, Omar hires an ex-school friend, Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), whom he spots on the street late one night. He seems an unlikely choice. With his two-toned hair and his skinhead gang, not above an occasional spot of "Paki-bashing," Johnny might be one of thousands of angry, disenfranchised working-class toughs roaming late-night London. The fact that he's something quite different is only one of "My Beautiful Laundrette's" joys.
He is, in fact, fierce, young, smart, gay and becoming sick of the aimlessness of his squatter's existence. Matter-of-factly, Johnny and Omar become lovers as they begin to turn the ratty launderette into a trendy, tongue-in-cheek showplace, called Powders, their inside joke on the source of the project's seed money.
The way Frears stages his crisscrossing metaphorical romances is deliciously acute. At the gaudy opening of Powders, Nasser and Rachel waltz together openly to "The Skaters" waltz while, 20 feet away, unseen behind the fish tank and the two-way glass, the two boys are in a hot, bare-chested tangle. To each generation its own rules: One recognizes mistresses, but not homosexuality; the next is offhanded about gays but resentful of women "who live off men."
And we are left to ponder on the winners and the losers in all these pairs. One "mixed" couple endures, a second devoted pair crashes. Witchcraft from the old country works, its old moral values decline. One father's teachings--idealism, the left's ideals of trade unionism, a devotion to books--are irrelevant in Mrs. Thatcher's economy; his brother's flawed morality triumphs (although he loses the two women central to his life).
With the superb Jaffrey and Seth as its linchpins, the cast is extraordinary; the innocence of Warnecke's Omar seems to shift into experience before our eyes, and Shirley Anne Field is especially memorable as the infinitely lovable Rachel. But it's Daniel Day Lewis, taut, intelligent, erotic, who is an emerging star, as you will see when you compare this performance with his diametrically different role in "Room With a View," which opens next week.
'MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE' An Orion Classics release of A Working Title Ltd./SAF Productions production for Film Four International. Producers Sarah Radclyffe, Tim Bevan. Director Stephen Frears. Screenplay Hanif Kureishi. Camera Oliver Stapleton. Editor Mick Audsley. Music Ludus Tonalis. Design Hugo Luczyc Whyhowski. Sound Albert Bailey. Costume design Lindy Hemming. With Daniel Day Lewis, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, Gordon Warnecke, Shirley Anne Field, Rita Wolf, Derrick Branche, Charu Bala Choksi, Souad Faress.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).