The 91st Academy Awards, held in February this year, marked a significant achievement for Netflix. Despite previously achieving success for their documentary output, Alfonso Cuarón’s Best Director win for Roma was the first time that the company had been recognised in one of the “Big Five” categories. Seeking to expand on that success, The Laundromat is the first in a series of films that are receiving limited cinematic releases in order to ensure eligibility for awards. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, among others, will follow later in the year.
Based around the Panama Papers scandal, the film is narrated by Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. The pair’s eponymous firm was at the centre of a global tax avoidance scheme and implicated in an array of illegal activities from fraud to corruption before being exposed in 2016. In between this account, the audience is shown overlapping vignettes about the people involved in and affected by Mossack Fonseca’s exploits. Meryl Streep portrays Ellen Martin, an elderly woman at the centre of one of these stories, who sets out to discover the truth about the company.
By juxtaposing the perpetrators with the victims, the film is able to avoid glorifying the figures it depicts in a way that similar films, notably The Wolf of Wall Street, struggled with. Oldman and Banderas’ narration is effective at revealing the self-absorbed nature of their characters, while at the same time providing an insight into the various machinations that allowed them to profit from others’ misfortune for so long. In the complex way that they weave the story together, the film is able to mirror the convoluted conspiracy that it depicts.
Steven Soderbergh served as producer, director, cinematographer, and editor on The Laundromat and his impact is apparent throughout the film. From the characteristic close-ups to the smart transitions, there is a feeling of deliberate composition. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the narrative could easily have become tangled by the way it moves between various characters and events. It’s a credit to Soderbergh that it does not.
Undoubtedly the most impressive part of the film, though, is the central performance by Meryl Streep. She embodies the role of a woman struggling to understand the forces that are operating around her but still recognising that there is an injustice being perpetrated. If Oscar recognition is the aim with this film then the twenty-one time nominee was a clever piece of casting. In addition to the three aforementioned stars, there is a strong supporting cast including Sharon Stone and David Schwimmer. Perhaps the only misstep is the casting of Oldman, who never seems to be entirely at ease in his portrayal of the German-born Mossack.
Certainly there are sections of the film that are more effective and entertaining than others but overall The Laundromat is a stylish, funny and well-acted film that carefully balances the need to be entertaining with a desire to treat its subject matter with the proper importance.