My Beautiful Laundrette
Stephen Frears was at the forefront of the British cinematic revival of the mid-1980s, and the delightfully transgressive My Beautiful Laundrette is his greatest triumph of the period. Working from a richly layered script by Hanif Kureishi, who was soon to be an internationally renowned writer, Frears tells an uncommon love story that takes place between a young South London Pakistani man (Gordon Warnecke), who decides to open an upscale laundromat to make his family proud, and his childhood friend, a skinhead (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a breakthrough role) who volunteers to help make his dream a reality. This culture-clash comedy is also a subversive work of social realism that dares to address racism, homophobia, and sociopolitical marginalization in Margaret Thatcher’s England.
Stephen Frear’s My Beautiful Laundrette arrives on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection, who presents the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. The new high-definition presentation is delivered in 1080p/24hz and comes from a 2K scan of the original 16mm A/B negative.
The film was initially made for television until it was screened at a film festival where built up interest and strong word of mouth. After that it was picked up for theatrical distribution in the UK and the USA. An interview in the supplements explains that Channel 4 required, at the time, films be shot on 16mm, I assume for budgetary reasons. The image is very grainy, probably grainier than what we get with the recent My Dinner with Andre disc Criterion released and there’s a number of limitations to the image because of this. Detail isn’t incredibly strong and there can be a faint fuzziness to everything, but this doesn’t have anything to do with the digital work itself and is more a limitation of the film used. Since the faint details don’t come through all that well textures aren’t as strong as one may hope.
The encode receives a healthy bitrate, though, which at least helps in rendering the film’s grain. Some low lit sequences look more pixilated than naturally grainy, but most of the film renders grain well and dances around naturally. I didn’t notice any obscene digital anomalies and the transfer looks smooth in motion. The print has a few minor marks remaining but the restoration work has been certainly intensive. And though black levels can maybe be a bit of mixed bag, looking rich in inky in some areas but a little more on the dark gray side in others, the presentations most impressive aspect is its presentation of colours. I remember the film having more of a drab look but the colours are rich a deep here, particularly reds and oranges. Saturation is superb and they look quite natural.
Ultimately the presentation is limited by the 16mm source but the restoration work has been quite thorough and the digital transfer is mostly very clean and natural. It looks nice.
The film comes with a lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track that has its ups and downs. It has a fairly flat sound to it, with very limited range and fidelity. Unfortunately I found a good chunk of dialogue hard to hear, a lot of it coming off muffled and flat. It’s weak but more than likely related to issues with the original recordinings.
Criterion’s special edition is a tad underwhelming, though not without its strong points. The best feature is easily a new interview with director Stephen Frears conducted by producer Colin MacCabe. The two spend the first chunk of the interview talking about Frears’ television work and then his work with other directors, including Lindsay Anderson, before getting the script for My Beautiful Laundrette. He talks about the production to a great extent, from casting to release, and talks about some of the more technical details, including the rather cool crane shot he fit in (only because he just happened to have a crane that day). He also touches on some of the things you have to give up when working on a low budget film, as well as having to be ready to work around unplanned events. MacCabe brings up the film’s representation of minorities and how it’s very different from other such films of the time (it’s far more upbeat than others). Frears also throws in many barbs at Margaret Thatcher and her policies, not surprising since the film is basically a critical snapshot of England at that time, though does praise her for starting up Channel 4, which is how this film got made. Frears is very honest, even expressing annoyance at some of MacCabe’s points, particularly how MacCabe hints at Frears being some warrior against racism where Frears admits he’s guilty of jumping to conclusions about other people. At 34-minutes it’s a strong, informative piece.
Criterion then provides a new 16-minute interview with writer Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi describes his desire in becoming a writer (picturing himself as a “punk, British, Asian” writer) and the path getting there along with the various influences in his writing (primarily American pop culture), and writing the script for this film. But he talks a lot about films of that period, some of which (by the likes of Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway) that looked into the future and then others that were really trying to hold on to the past, Kureishi using David Lean’s “really boring film” A Passage to India as an example (coincidentally Frears, in his interview, singled out that film for its questionable casting of Alec Guinness instead of an Indian actor). This of course leads to Kureishi to talk about the effects of Thatcher’s policies and the harm they brought, particularly to those people “on the margins.” It’s fairly insightful interview that probably offers the best contextualization for the film.
The film’s producers (and founders of Working Title) Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe next talk about the important role the film played in their careers and in growing their production company. They chat about the early years working on music videos and the valuable experience from making them, and then trying to get into film making, which was only made possible for them because of the founding of Channel 4, the BBC being incredibly hard to break into because of the unions (I guess there is some irony in the fact that this film, which does criticize Thatcher’s policies, was really only able to be made because of some of Thatcher’s policies). The two talk about the production and the various difficulties they ran into, all related to low budget filmmaking, and then their surprise at the film’s reception, which moved it from an intended television film to an actual theatrical release. But the most interesting aspect is when the two move onto their work as producers and the films that followed this one. A great overview of the role of a producer in in filmmaking.
The disc then concludes its interviews with a new interview with cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. It’s a very technical but incredibly fascinating discussion about the look of the film, paying particular attention to the use of colour and light in the film. He also talks about Frears’ process in directing and his instincts in camera placement. It runs about 21-minutes.
The disc then closes with the film’s American theatrical trailer while the insert features an essay on the film, the presentation of its characters and time period written by Graham Fuller. Sadly the essay offers the only scholarly slant.
The interviews are all rather good and nicely cover the making of the film, the political climate at the time, the film’s commentary on those times, and the state of British cinema, though to a point: the disc is still missing a more scholarly/analytical edge, like a lot of Criterion releases lately, which could have looked more closely at the British film industry during this period or even get into more detail about the “Thatcher era.”
The supplements are all worth the time to go through, despite them being a little bit underwhelming in the end. The presentation, though, is very strong and easily this releases’ selling point.