[After its opening date was pushed back multiple times, when Brick Lane finally opened in Baltimore, there wasn’t room for the full review I had written. The edited version is up on the site; this is my original version.]
Novelist Monica Ali’s 2003 debut Brick Lane tells the story of a young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen, who, after an arranged marriage, moved into the predominantly Bangladeshi “Brick Lane” neighborhood in London. The story gradually unfolded as Nazneen tentatively acclimated herself to her new environs–starkly different from the rural village in which she grew up–and gained new perspective on both her past and current lives. The neighborhood depicted in the book was dire, unforgiving, and oppressive to the young Nazneen, who opted to remain inside her flat mostly, depending on her good-natured–if generally delusional–husband and her fully assimilated children to bring her news of the world beyond the small area she was willing to explore. Ali’s deftly painted portrait of an insulated immigrant community wasn’t devoid of archetypes and stereotypes, for which she received considerable criticism, nor did it fully address many of the issues–feminism, faith, the immigrant experience–it raised, but it was nonetheless an evocative backdrop for Nazneen’s personal growth, which came slowly but quite surely.
Director Sarah Gavron’s feature-film debut Brick Lane, however, is a movie about a young Bangladeshi woman who gets up the nerve to fool around on her gullible husband. It’s pure, pedantic hackery to discredit a novel adapted to the screen for not living up to the literary strengths of its source material–different storytelling formats, fundamental shifts in perception, imagination doing less heavy lifting, blah, blah, blah–and Brick Lane certainly doesn’t fall to the dream-crushing depths that fans suffered through with, say, The Golden Compass. Yet Gavron’s gutting of Ali’s richly textured and precisely populated world, along with some considerable temporal shifts (events are reordered, compressed or reconfigured with great gusto) results in a work that elicits an entirely different emotional response than its predecessor. Not worse. Just different.
Gavron’s movie dismisses the urbane, post-colonial implications of Ali’s book and instead focuses solely on having you empathize with Nazneen’s struggle to establish herself as a woman, both within the four walls of her family home and within the turbulent immigrant’s world of early 2000s England. In this task she is greatly abetted by Tannishtha Chatterjee, an actress blessed with a perfectly expressive visage. When we first see Nazneen smile–almost halfway through the movie–Chatterjee’s face blossoms with a joy that lifts the tight veil of tension that had dominated her reserved countenance. This epiphanic moment is almost as much a relief to the viewer as it is to Nazneen, and in that moment it’s clear that Gavron wisely afforded Chatterjee plenty of room to inhabit the character fully.
But it’s also the first moment that you are able to connectwith any of the characters in the movie. Chatterjee does a great job of outwardly presenting the timid stoicism of someone who is sociallyand emotionally isolated from the world around her. The few lively characters that pop up in the movie’s early goings–Nazneen’s garrulous husband, her surly elder daughter, her boisterous, “modern” neighbor, the usurious crone and, of course, the handsome object of Nazneen’s desire–never get fully drawn, leaving you to ponder Nanzeen’s glum flashbacks to her village along with her. While that
was surely Gavron’s point, watching someone shyly mumble and avert her eyes doesn’t make for the most engaging filmmaking. (Sadly, the movie
has none of Ali’s narrative motion to draw you into it.) Yet, in that smile, the movie opens up along with Nazneen, and the storytelling train begins to chug along in earnest.
Gavron then shifts gears from studied stoicism to expressive overload, discarding limited exposition in favor of multiple points of action, involving an extramarital affair, pre- and post-Sept. 11 racism, a revelatory fever, job loss, and more. Yet just when Nazneen is about to get swallowed up in the movie’s newfound hustle and bustle, Gavron again tightens the focus on Chatterjee’s face, and you can’t help but notice that her eyes have darkened and her smile is wistful and wizened. Nostalgia has been replaced with a newfound independence. Though Gavron gets there in an entirely different–and
decidedly less substantial–way than Ali, you’re still confronted with a main character who has undertaken an epic journey in a very confined space.
First appeared Sept. 17, 2008 in Baltimore Citypaper.