Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Stephen Frears | My Beautiful Laundrette / Neil Jordan | The Crying Game
what is a gaymovie? II
by Douglas Messerli
Kureishi (screenplay), Stephen Frears (director) My Beautiful Laundrette / 1985 Neil
Jordon (screenplay and director) The
Crying Game / 1992
Although Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette is generally
described as a comedy, and it often behaves as one, even ending somewhat
positively, I cannot help feeling, every time I watch this film, a bit
dispirited, even depressed. I might almost describe the work as bleak. Perhaps
it is just realistic.
On the surface, I know I ought to feel
happy for the gay couple at the center of this work. Both are beautiful men,
Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) a handsome Pakistani man, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis)
a good-looking British punk, who begins the film as a street tough, beating up
on the Pakis who have found success in Thatcher's United Kingdom, while their
own families and themselves do without.
Omar, living with his alcoholic father seems to have an impossibly
temperate personality as he cleans and up and cooks for his bitter Papa, a
former journalist who hates the London in which he lives and intends to raise a
son who will be well-educated. He clearly would prefer to be back in Pakistan,
but has lost any wealth he once had. The film gets underway when he sends Omar
to work for his brother Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), who, as he later describes it,
has learned to "squeeze the tits of the system." He puts Omar to work
in his garage washing cars.
Nassar has only a daughter, but his symbolic son, Salim (Derrick
Branche), a young man he has taken on, earns his way by trafficing drugs. Just
as he had joyfully served his father, Omar now pleasantly washes cars:
Papa: Tell me one
thing because there's something I
understand, though it must be my fault
it that scrubbing cars can make a son
look so ecstatic?
Omar: It gets me
out of the house.
In fact, Omar is incredibly ambitious, but in his quiet way he moves
forward more quickly than if he had shown his intentions. For, within a few
days, he has been introduced to Nasser's daughter Tania (Rita Wolf) with the
intention of marrying the two and has been promoted by Nasser to take over a
By coincidence, Salim, his wife Cherry, and Omar are accosted by a gang
of British thugs, led by Johnny, an old school chum of Omar's. Completely
unfazed by the incident, Omar leaves the car, approaching Johnny:
Johnny: Like me
Ring us then.
Johnny: I will. [indicates the car where Cherry is getting
angry] Leave 'em there. We can do
something. Now. Just us.
What quickly becomes apparent is that the two have had a sexual
relationship, and now are quite ready to resume it, despite the vast
differences in their stars, and before you can say Lahore the two are fucking
in the back of Omar's laundrette, for which Omar hires Johnny to help him
remodel. For these two, love and money seem to be the tie that binds; as soon
as Johnny has been hired, he leaves his gang of toughs and the two men,
stealing drugs from one of Salim's deliveries, transform their little rundown
laundry into the beautiful laundrette of the film's title.
course, there are complex interludes, revealing a few of the differences
between them: Omar is still expected to marry Tania and even proposes to her,
the gang eventually comes down upon both Omar and Johnny, and as their shop is
about to open, Nassar almost catches them at sex. And then there's Salim to
report to for that little drug heist, which forces them into a robbery where we
briefly see them accosting a young girl who has heard their entry into the
house. But love and money seem to lubricate the wheels just enough that you
know these two will succeed in life. Omar may never get to college, Nassar
loses his British mistress, and Tania, running away from home, simply
disappears between two speeding trains. Has she jumped onto the tracks?
But with the final splash of suds as Omar and Johnny minister one another,
wiping away the bruises of their encounter with the gang, we know they're going
to get on just fine in this British capitalist world, while Omar's father will
pine away in bed for the son he has lost.
One can well understand why these two boys feel such love for one
another, unlike Ang Lee's cowboys of Brokeback
Mountain: both are blessed with movie-star looks. But it is almost
impossible that they might truly patch up the vast differences of their pasts.
Even though they are both outsiders, inside they must necessarily be still
bruised by societal differences that are little explored in Hanif Kureishi's
glib fairy tale. We might take notice of two changes in these men: the former
teetotaler Omar is drinking heavily by film's end. And Johnny has become quite
fashion conscious. Margaret Thatcher has clearly won!
This is a warning: I not only will reveal the
secret of The Crying Game,
which—evidently millions of viewers have not—but I will insist this is not a gay movie. Although its hero, Fergus
(Stephen Rea)holds the penis of his
Black soldier prisoner, later visits gay bars several times, and has sex with a
trans-gendered man two times, he is a heterosexual, who has no knowledge of the
events, and, although once discovering her sexuality—even after
vomiting—viciously protects her by admitting to killing her attacker, Jude
(Miranda Richardson). Fergus' only failure is that he cannot kill anyone, even
though he is a former IRA terrorist.
Although, with Jude and
Maguire (Adrian Dunbar) Fergus has kidnapped a Black British soldier, he
clearly does not have the stomach for the events which follow, including
keeping the prisoner with a sack over his head and, ultimately, murdering him
in retribution for British occupation in Northern Ireland. In his attempt to
remain alive, the soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker) analyzes his captors,
recognizing Fergus as "the kind one," and using Fergus' reticence as
a tool to control him. The cold-hearted Jude and Maguire are adamant that the
prisoner be kept quite literarily "in the dark," but Fergus removes
the sack and even holds the cuffed man's penis to that he might urinate. The
two quickly and quietly bond, Jody even revealing a picture of his special love
back in London, Dil, and asking, if he is killed, for Fergus to take care of
long, somewhat rambling first part of the film is a rough but necessary
introduction to the characters, who will play out their psychological beings
later in the work. Indeed, Fergus is told a story by the perceptive Jody early
on about a frog who agrees to carry a scorpion upon its back across a river,
during which the scorpion bites him, dooming, quite obviously, both animals.
When asked by the frog why the scorpion has bitten him, the scorpion replies:
"It's in my nature."
Accordingly, when ordered to kill Jody, Fergus balks, allowing Jody to
run from him through the woods, but, as he crosses the road to safety, one of his
own unit's tanks accidently runs him down, and he is killed. The IRA quarters
are blown up, with Jude and Maguire miraculously escaping.
second half of the film also begins slowly, with Fergus, now in London,
tracking down Dil (Jaye Davidson) working in a hair salon, gradually beginning
to study her, "giving her the look," as she describes it to the
bartender, Col (Jim Broadbent). The two begin a romance, with Dil enacting
time he visits the nearby club, he and the audience observe slight changes. The
bar seems less glittery, the clientele stranger. A regular, Dil sings "The
Crying Game," which is itself a oddly sad song about the impossibility and
transitoriness of love:
I know all there is to
know about the crying game
I've had my share of the
First there are kisses,
then there are sighs
And then before you know
where you are, you're saying goodby
Before long, the perceptive viewer
begins to suspect what is revealed in the couple's second sexual encounter: Dil
is a transgendered male. Fergus is disgusted and accidently hits her in his
rush to the bathroom. A few days go by.
Yet the relationship between the two is still viable, and, although he
no longer is sexually attracted, he does send her a note, she remaining loyal
to him despite his actions. She even visits his at his work site, where he is helping to build
an apartment building.
At this point Jude and Maguire reenter the scene, insisting—since Fergus
has failed in the other incident—that he join them in a planned assignation of
a British political figure. Although at first he attempts to reject
involvement, Jude's hint that she knows about his relationship with Dil, forces
him to realize that if he does not join them, Dil is in danger.
To protect Dil, Fergus attempts to transform her into her male being,
forcing her to cut her hair and dress in shirt and pants. The transition is a
failure, as Dil now looks more like a young ungainly boy than the beautiful
woman he previously was, and Dil gets drunk, demanding that he stay with her
for the night. Fergus agrees, also admitting his involvement in Jody's death.
Before he can leave the next morning Dil has tied him to the bed, unwittingly
preventing him from participating in the murder which might save her life. Holding
Fergus at gunpoint she demands that he tell her he loves her: even if he's
lying, she admits, it's nice to hear his words.
When the furious Jude shows up, Dil turns the gun on her, shooting and
killing her before attempting to turn the gun on herself. But Fergus prevents
her, telling her to hide out at the club, while he wipes her fingerprints off
the gun, allowing himself to be arrested for Jude's death.
Fergus, now in prison, is visited by Dil. Still amazed by his actions,
she promises to wait for him, recognizing him as "the love of her
No greater love as the man says. I wish
you'd tell me why.
Whereupon Fergus retells the story of
the frog and scorpion.
At film's end, we believe that they will stay together. As he admits,
his acts are simply part of his nature. And love is part of that makeup. As Col
has said earlier on: "Who knows the secrets of the human heart?" No
matter how the audience views transvestism or trans-gendered people, by seeing
the relationship develop through Fergus' view, it cannot help but rout for the
fulfillment of a normal love story. Love simply must win out. And, in this
sense, it is not a "gay" love story, but a heterosexual one with an
odd twist,a "straight" story
about two men who have fallen in love.
Unlike the outsiders who buy into the system in Frear's work, Jordon's
insiders—both of them representing, at least on the surface, versions of
normality—are able to break outside of society, offering themselves a new way
of living life.