“It could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago…. That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
From situations of political uncertainty there can emerge the possibility to imagine and realise new forms of social relations, between individuals and in relation to governing power structures. Such changes can be liberating but fraught with emotional, legal and practical complications, as the dominant, previously unquestioned relationships resist their upheaval and the lines of definition become dissolved.
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was Hanif Kureishi‘s second screenplay to be directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Tim Bevan. It is lesser known than their first collaboration, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and it was criticized upon its release in 1987 for its lack of focus, with a storyline that was at once strangely both ‘fragmented and didactic.’ The film’s backdrop is a borough of London in revolt, catalysed by the shooting of a 50-year-old mother during a raid of her house by police looking for her son. The narrative foreground is comprised around a young couple’s relationship of “freedom and commitment” that, despite their own happiness, seems to be perpetually unsettled. Rosie believes that “Jealousy is worse than adultery,” Sammy explains to his photographer lover, and maintaining an open honesty over and about her desires takes precedence over the exclusivity of marital consignment. Rosie, it turns out, has come to dedicate her life’s work to a sort of practice-based research into the social and political dimensions of kissing. A kiss between married couples, she explains, is reasonably simple and unmistakable. Kisses with a family member can be more ambiguous in terms of their acceptability while others, with others, are based on irrational, unreadable desire or emotions that are therefore less determinable. Rather than staking a preference of one over the other, Rosie embraces them all in every dimension, as do her associates to varying degrees.The life and politics of a previous generation is represented by Sammy’s father, Rafi, who is visiting from India where his life is threatened as a result of his role in the corrupt and violent governmental regime. In defence over his situation, he claims his actions were aimed at bringing order to the chaotic postcolonial state, a kind of modern ‘order’ of governance that he had learned enough about when he was educated in England as a young man. However, he has returned to find his memory of a beloved British society in tatters, from his son’s neighbourhood at least. When he visits his old flame Alice at her large house in a quiet leafy suburb of North London, where from inside the darkness of her basement she keeps the dusty containers of her unfulfilled dreams, Rafi feels reassured that England has not changed all that much after all. Meanwhile Alice’s wilful patience and self- effacement in her personal life, as well as her ideas of reaffirming traditional concepts of value and nationhood in the face of social change demonstrates her belief that what restrains you as an individual should be considered preferable as it is of benefit to social order.
The violent clashes on the streets seem to mostly happen in a bubble from which the film’s key characters reside while undertaking their own social experiments with each other’s bodies, slipping undercover and evading any scrutiny over their actions amidst the chaos outside. However the image of a parallel existence is not strictly accurate. For example, Danny (Victoria) confesses to Rosie whilst they lie together in bed that he come to the South London area in the first place to visit the woman who brought him up as a boy, only to discover that she is the one the police have shot. The apparent collusion of fate seems to excite Rosie, but the disinterest of Victoria, Rosie, Sammy and their friends for the details of the crisis situation around them, along with their demonstrable over emphasis on individual expression above and beyond the consequences, is problematic on a number of levels, not least if we consider that politics is not just about what we choose to do with our own bodies, nor is it only about atrocities that happen overseas, but also involves the much messier and complex problems relating to our immediate entanglements with others. For example, it is not so easy for Sammy to dismiss his father for his wrong doings precisely because he is his father, which inevitably blurs the definitions between political affiliation and familial responsibility. Traditionally, in order to accept or refuse something it must first be compartmentalised and verified, but what if we cannot grasp the required critical distance in order for this to function, or a person or situation possesses numerous categories at once? How else can we make decisions and take principled action if, as one character observes, ‘liberalism has gone mad?’ Furthermore, can adultery actually exist without any consequence like jealousy, as Rosie seems to believe? Is the expulsion of all jealousy desirable let alone even possible? Jealousy can be suffocating as we know, but it is also a very powerful moderator of our feelings and actions towards other people and things. Rather than declaring a law against jealously and its tethers in favour of an idea of freedom and multiplicity, is it perhaps best to consider why it is we do get jealous, despite what we think we know about our self and others, in order to understand it better?
While making the film, Kureishi wrote in his published diary, “My love and fascination for inner London endures. Here there is fluidity and possibilities unlimited.” However, this quite uncritical love affair with the city’s cosmopolitanism combined with the film’s quite incessant and excitable sexual content, clouds the sort of aforementioned subtle commentary that is present in the story. The subsequent sensationalism in the film’s content that the writer intended to use as a declaration of war on the British establishment caused a reactionary sort of criticism that proved ultimately to be a detriment to its success and despite the pertinence of the social and political landscape today (this morning the news reports on the final eviction of the St Pauls occupation), the film remains something of a cellulose time capsule for a situation of ‘freedom without commitment’ told from the partial perspective of a political imperative at a particular moment in British history.
Lenin’s familiar words, “Revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution,” are pertinent here. A revolutionary situation based upon a pursuit of freedom for freedom’s sake is tragically flawed when it overlooks and undermines the restraints of its own very difficult and real social contexts and backgrounds. This film, framed by the unmistakable tones of Margaret Thatcher, illustrates how what came to catalyse the disruption to British politics, along with the ensuing reactionary violence and social experimentation that followed is also what has come in to shut it down. The bulldozers move into the camp under the motorway bridge with the promise of cleaning up and bringing order. It is a dismal echo of Rafi’s excuses for his own violent actions in postcolonial India. Amidst this ‘clean-up,’ Victoria almost shrugs as he tells Rosie he must be moving on and she can only barely withhold her disappointment. When one thing is deemed no longer viable, any number of new things could take its place, but the question that ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’ is unable to address is what should happen now, and how. And how much.