Christine Geraghty’s new study of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) combines an intelligent and detailed analysis of the film with a stimulating and impeccably researched account of its contemporary critical reception, and its enduring reputation within a range of popular and academic discourses.
The first collaboration between writer Hanif Kureishi and director Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette is widely regarded as a landmark film, both in terms of its production history and its content. Produced for Channel 4 and originally intended as a television feature, its successful theatrical release has been seen as the foundation of the Film on Four ethos. At the same time, its handling of the central story elements of ethnicity and homosexuality symbolised the changing face of representations of Britishness.
Geraghty’s book involves an extensive focus upon the film text itself, encompassing its narrative structure, mise-en-scène, and acting and performance. The detail with which the film is observed is impressive and provides an excellent resource for further study. But the book’s greatest strength is arguably its examination of My Beautiful Laundrette in the context of the critical discourses that have surrounded it. Where many writers have employed extensive quotation of critical approbation in order to signal the worthiness of their own project, Geraghty’s approach is more sophisticated and enlightening. Her perceptive readings of secondary texts shed light upon a range of critical agendas as much as they do upon the film itself.
Eschewing detailed discussion of its genesis and production history, Geraghty focuses instead upon the industrial and critical environments within which the film was made. Examining the ways in which it participated in debates about the differences between film and television, her citation of contemporary reviews demonstrates the importance of such issues to the responses of many writers, as well as charting the film’s changing status from a low-budget television movie to an art house film that successfully crossed over into the mainstream.
Her account of the film’s enduring impact is particularly absorbing. As well as adopting the conventional methods of measuring the reputation of a work through its presence in critics’ lists and through the way it has filtered into other media – in this case the transformation into a stage play in 2002 – she explores the film’s place within a variety of academic contexts.
Observing its presence on a range of university courses, she details the range of disciplines that have used the film as source material with which to examine diverse issues,ranging from postcolonialism to moral philosophy. Within film studies, she shows how My Beautiful Laundrette’s status as a reference point for Asian writers and filmmakers owes much to the ease with which it can be framed within fashionable theories of ‘hybridity and cultural diversity’, whilst its lesser reputation within the canon of gay cinema can be attributed in part to its failure to fit in with the preoccupations of queer theory.
Especially interesting is Geraghty’s description of responses to the film by academics based outside Britain, revealing the extent to which critical agendas are determined by their cultural environment as much as are those of the film itself. Thus one American writer focuses on issues of entrepreneurship, whilst another author compares the film to works by Scorsese and Fassbinder, showing how its characters act ‘according to social and economic contingencies’ within ‘a rapidly deteriorating culture’. These responses conspicuously fail to address the preoccupations of British critics and theorists, who have tended to closet the film’s social issues and production circumstances within a framework born of national boundaries.
The rigorous and multifaceted analysis provided in this fascinating book will undoubtedly prove valuable to students and experienced academics alike, whilst its style is sufficiently accessible to appeal to a wider range of film enthusiasts. And if the production values of the Turner Classic Movies British Film Guides are lower than the more established BFI Film Classics series, this should not be allowed to detract from the fact that the calibre of the writing more than equals the very best of those books.