One of the regular entries on “best ever film” lists, but one I’d never got round to seeing. No excuses, really. It used to be on Channel 4 regularly for a few years but I was, as a young heterosexual male growing up in the 70s and 80s, very uncomfortable with the idea of watching a film about gay lovers and made no effort to watch it despite having been told how good a film it was. Now, being more mature and less threatened in my own identity, I can watch films about gay men just on the basis of the story being told, without prejudice, I hope.
From a Hanif Kureishi script, filmed and set in 1980s Britain, at the height of Thatcherism and at the end of the last big UK racist street movements, the film concentrates on the families of Pakistani immigrants through the story of Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young man who is earmarked by his father, an alcoholic who has failed to transfer his intellectual and political genius to Britain, to go to college and succeed where he has failed, but is drawn to the seedy world of his uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) and the opportunities presented by his various car and property businesses around London. Nasser and his assistant Salim (Derrick Branche) are the epitome of Thatcherite ambition and ruthlessness, caring not at all for the problems of other people as they relentlessly chase the goal of making money.
Omar sees an opportunity for himself in one of Nasser’s failing businesses, a run-down launderette, and recruits one of his boyhood friends, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) to help him. This friendship is fraught in a couple of ways. Omar’s father always suspected them (rightly) of being more than just friends but made efforts to help Johhny. But Johnny is white, working class, and his friends are racist thugs – and Johnny is compromised by his association with them.
As Omar and Johnny make the launderette work, using money pilferred from one of Salim’s more insalubrious business, drug trafficking, Nasser starts to regard Omar as a potential husband for his independent-minded daughter Tania (Rita Wolf) in order both to keep her in check and to keep his businesses in the family. Salim, resentful at Omar’s drug-money sting, and watchful for an opportunity to get back at him, starts to suspect something is not ‘right’ about them and plans to expose their relationship, even as Tania plans to exploit Omar and Johnny to effect her escape from the stifling control of a traditional Pakistani family.
The themes of culture clash, or rather culture clashes, of opportunities and ethics, and of personal identity politics are deftly mixed and, having watched this, the more recent film based on UK Pakistani identity, East is East, really looks lightweight and clumsy in comparison. Most of the cast are good, Saeed Jaffrey and Daniel Day-Lewis especially, though Gordon Warnecke’s Omar is rather wooden, especially when called on to do more than the mundane, leaving a bit of a vacuum where the heart of the film ought to be.
Still, a film well worth making the effort for, even if it took me a while.