Image Credit: ‘My Beautiful Laundrette,’ The Criterion Channel

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit My Beautiful Laundrette.

What aspect of our lives gives us a sense of belonging? Is it our family; the people that raised us? Our group of friends; those who we share interests and passions with? The partner that we decide to marry and spend the rest of our lives with? Our local communities, our country of origin, our religion…? The answer is much more complex that just one or the other.

This week we’ll be diving into the seminal 1985 queer romantic drama My Beautiful Laundrette. The film explores the intersections of identity and belonging under the neon signs and shadowy street corners of 1980s London, where its two lead characters are aimlessly looking for a place in the world and find it in each other.

The Set-Up

My Beautiful Laundrette follows Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a driven young man of Pakistani descent living in London, working under his uncle Nasser’s (Saeed Jaffrey) many businesses while taking care of his alcoholic father (Roshan Seth).

One night, a group of hooligan street punks attack his car, and he recognizes one of them as Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), an old neighbor and friend—and implied former flame. Following the attraction that seemed to have always existed between them, Omar invites Johnny to get together.

Soon, the two start (or reignite?) a passionate affair as they renovate a laundrette owned by Omar’s uncle and face the various prejudices by each of their communities.

Opposites Attract

Image Credit: ‘My Beautiful Laundrette,’ The Criterion Channel

The main tension of the film comes from the two extremely different worlds that Omar and Johnny come from, and how their lifestyles and life goals have shifted since they last saw each other.

Omar comes from a displaced immigrant community that’s eager to prove itself in a new land, with capitalist ideals and money-making plans always at the forefront.  Johnny, on the other hand, has placed himself in the margins of the same society. He has associated with a fascist hate group, and his friends constantly attack and vandalize on the streets. One is trying his best to be accepted into mainstream society, while the other is actively railing against it.

But at the same time, and despite their best efforts, neither of them feels they fit in. Omar soon discovers that associates of his uncle are running illicit drug trades, and he refuses to participate in them. He won’t let himself be married to the women his father sets him up with.

And, as soon as Omar is back in his life, Johnny distances himself from his hooligan lifestyle, feels guilty over past incidents, and tries to get himself back on a good path.

Behind Closed Doors

Omar and Johnny meet at a place in their lives where they are each trying to fit in with groups that clearly do not want them with them, or that go against what they want in their own lives. They want to find connection and purpose and meaning, and are only able to find it when they are together, while doing the seemingly simple task of refurbishing and running an old laundrette.

They go on long walks at night and steal kisses in the shadows of an alleyway. They reintroduce each other to their friends and family. They have sex in the backroom of the laundrette in what has to be one of the sexiest scenes in cinema—including a moment where the spit champagne into one another’s mouths.

When they stop trying to be accepted, they are simply able to be.

It All Comes Out In The Wash

Image Credit: ‘My Beautiful Laundrette,’ The Criterion Channel

The movie can also be seen as a metaphor for the overall racial relationships between the Pakistani immigrants and the local British community in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, and how their attempts at assimilation, societal rebellion, and pursuit of British ideals worked both for and against the people.

But it’s only because the film works so well as a small, intimate character drama that these larger themes are also able to resonate.

However, what’s most refreshing about My Beautiful Laundrette is that it never once puts its two lead characters in true jeopardy or question over their queerness. Omar and Johnny never have to come to terms with being attracted to each other. They don’t have to fight it. They don’t have to hide it. It’s the one part of their identities that they don’t have to question or fight to have validated.

A Refreshing Spin

Image Credit: ‘My Beautiful Laundrette,’ The Criterion Channel

Omar’s family may have unrealistic expectations of him. Johnny may belong to a group of hateful vandals. The tensions between their racial groups may be at an all-time high in the history of the United Kingdom, and their social class may be a constant struggle to get out of. But they are able to find comfort and release in their queerness.

They jump back at it the moment they see each other again. It’s never hard, or threatening, or confusing, or painful. It’s the one thing that helps them survive in a world that is against them in every other regard. It’s beautiful, and—just like the laundromat they’re renovating—they’re able to turn it into a space that is new, safe, and completely their own.

My Beautiful Laundrette is available to stream on Max, and can be rented or bought on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and VUDU.

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