Readers of Monica Ali’s best-selling novel will have to decide about the faithfulness of Sarah Gavron’s screen adaptation. But on its own terms “Brick Lane” is a curious combination of contemporary culture clash and formulaic melodrama. The story of a Bangladeshi woman trapped in a stifling marriage with a traditionalist husband in London certainly raises the issue of the maintenance of Muslim social norms in western society. But the way in which she’s tempted by romance with another man and the chance to strike out on her own financially has an old-fashioned feel, even if you connect it to more present-day ideas of female liberation. It’s like a Douglas Sirk weepie disguised as a statement of modern social relevance.
And yet though one can criticize the picture from such a perspective, it’s still surprisingly effective, and not simply because of the topical concerns that have been grafted onto the familiar story. As directed by Gavron, “Brick Lane” is also atmospheric and emotionally resonant, and it’s very well acted as well.
Indian beauty Tannishtha Chatterjee gives a controlled, unshowy but quietly powerful performance as Nazneen, one of two young sisters orphaned by their mother’s suicide who’s sent to England at age seventeen in an arranged marriage with an older expatriate there. After a brief prologue showing the sisters’ idyllic life together prior to their mother’s death, the film moves ahead sixteen years. Nazneen is still living a sequestered life in London’s East End with her husband Chanu (Satish Kaushik) and their two teen daughters. When Chanu quits his job after being passed over for promotion and gets into debt while trying to find another, his wife, who’s long accepted living a sheltered, submissive life, decides to follow the lead of some more westernized neighbors and take in sewing at home to help the family finances, despite the blow it means to her husband’s pride.
That choice brings her into contact with Karim (Christopher Simpson), the young British-raised man who delivers clothes to her for alteration. Despite their differences in age, the two are attracted to one another and become intimate—and Chanu’s realization of it hurts him deeply.
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, however, encourages an uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment, and Karim becomes active in efforts to defend against it. It’s at this point that Chanu, unable to find a job he feels commensurate with his talents, decides that he can’t remain in England and will take the family to Bangladesh, speaks up against growing radicalism as a surprisingly strong voice of reason. His deeply-felt response has a powerful effect on Nazneen’s attitude toward him, but she must still decide whether to agree to his decision about leaving England, especially in terms of her daughters’ future. She must decide whether to divorce him as Karim wishes her to do.
And hanging over all of this is Nazneen’s idealized recollection of life in Bangladesh, expressed in dreamlike memories of frolics with her sister and the letters they’ve exchanged over the years—which, as becomes clear, Nazneen has interpreted in far too positive a light.
In many respects one can interpret this narrative as a canny translation of old cliches into a contemporary context. But it’s made dramatically incisive by a welcome dose of complexity. The most notable example of this lies in the character of Chanu, who happily isn’t presented as a brutal taskmaster (as one might have expected), but as someone far more complicated and interesting. As the corpulent Kaushik expertly portrays him, he initially seems self-deluding, pretentious and obtuse, quoting Hume to demonstrate his learning, but as the film proceeds he grows into a touchingly fragile man, genuinely in love with his family and conscious of his own failings; and in the end he exhibits a dignity and sense of accommodation that makes him as heroic in his way as his wife is in hers. By contrast Karim, though well played by the personable Smith, comes across as one-dimensional, but not fatally so.
With cinematography by Robbie Ryan that juxtaposes the gritty London environment with lush moments to capture dreams and recollections and an unobtrusive score by Jocelyn Pook, “Brick Lane” may be little more than an old story dressed up in contemporary trappings, but in this case they elevate the formula.