A young Daniel Day-Lewis and an early Stephen Frears picture should be reason enough to watch this. That’s not to say that the cast outside of Day-Lewis isn’t (mostly) excellent. It is. Mostly.
The plot revolves around Omar (Gordon Warnecke), an ambitious Pakistani living in England who is charged with caring for his uncle Nasser’s (Saeed Jaffrey) run-down laundromat. Finding his former-fascist and current-lover friend Johnny (Day-Lewis), Omar quickly turns the decrepit building into something special.
Laundrette works as a film for a whole mess of reasons. First, Frears’ confident camera picks out special moments and elevates them – I’ll indicate a few in detail later. Second, the script, by Hanif Kureishi, isn’t just your simple rags-to-riches tale. There are plenty of issues of racism, sexuality and displacement running throughout. Omar is urged to marry a Pakistani woman, but has an affair with Johnny on the quiet. Johnny’s racist friends are conflicted as to whether leave him alone now that he’s working with (more specifically: working for) a “Paki.” Tania (Rita Wolf), Omar’s would-be lover, decides to leave her wealthy family behind for lack of excitement and, perhaps more specifically, of a real life.
Third, the performances are very strong. Three of the aforementioned – Day-Lewis, Jaffrey and Wolf – all deliver with complex, multi-layered roles. The major problem here, and with the film as a whole, is Warnecke’s performance as Omar. I can see why he was cast. He has a boyish face. He’s awkwardly tall and thin. He has a disarming, naive smile. All of these physical characteristics are absolutely correct for a character who works his way up via a combination of ingenuity, hard work and duplicity. But Warnecke’s lesser talent is quickly revealed when he’s put up against his superior counterparts. His delivery is forced, movements are awkward in a way not necessary to the character, and that innocent smile quickly becomes more of an actorly defense mechanism (think of the kid in Dazed and Confused always touching his nose). It’s a shame, because this is a weighty role that a better actor would really reach deep into.
Laundrette was shot in 16mm in a 4:3 aspect ratio – interesting given that Frears made The Hit (his best, in my opinion) the year before and shot in 35mm and at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I wonder if it has anything to do with the riskier subject matter (ie smaller budget). The Hit had Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth in it (though the latter was not yet a star…still Jim Broadbent and Fernando Rey make up for that). Laundrette had Daniel Day-Lewis in it, though still three years removed from his star-making turn in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The grittier, narrower frame doesn’t hurt the film though. Frears’ composition becomes appropriately more claustrophobic, though there are certainly moments where he opens the space. Consider one sequence shot that occurs towards the end of the film.
Johnny pulls up behind the laundromat and the camera starts at a distance from him:
The camera starts to move left, revealing one of Johnny’s former friends. As that man looks up, the camera also rises, motivated by his head movement:
The camera reaches the top of the building and finds another man on the roof:
Now motivated by our guy on the roof’s movement, the camera continues across it and then starts to arc down on the other side – the front – of the building:
As the camera drops down to ground-level, completing its movement over the building, it reveals the third thug:
Now that the sequence shot is complete, Frears cuts inside to show Johnny preparing for work:
Robert Siodmak would be proud. Why is this called a sequence shot and not simply a crane shot? It combines multiple scenes/scenarios into one camera movement. The classic example is during the robbery scene in Siodmak’s The Killers, when the camera shows everything from arrival through robbery to getaway in one shot.
Here it’s a little less “sequence” in that these elements aren’t really action-oriented. We’re not getting too much increasing plot progression. This is actually maybe closer to something in an Argento film – the long craning shot in Tenebre, for example.
The sequence shot in Laundrette seems to function in a few ways. First, it shows that Johnny is literally surrounded – behind, above, and in front of the building. This is information that could be achieved via multiple shots. The continuous aspect of it adds a few layers – the movement of camera and figures creates a complete, unbroken net around Johnny, furthering the idea of entrapment. Further, the long take stresses the idea of communication – active communication – between these three guys. Their communication – the first guy looking up, the second guy walking across the roof from back to front of the building – is what allows the camera to continue its movement, therefore allowing the circle to close around Johnny.
Overall, the camera move is about danger and the inevitability of violence. The cut releases that tension, but by that time it’s too late. There’s no tension inside (where Johnny currently is), but the frame is fraught with tension outside.