Controversy dogged this film even as it was being made, with the Brick Lane Bengali community protesting that Monica Ali, author of the book from which the movie is drawn, had no real knowledge or understanding of the milieu she was trying to portray. Fuss and bother is often a good thing for a film, or indeed any art form, as it stirs up interest. Which is just as well for the film, because in itself, it’s a disappointment, and one that perhaps inevitably reflects the flaws of the book, which I didn’t much like.
The storyline is straightforward: Bengali girl comes to grimy east London for an arranged marriage to a buffoon, suffers personal tragedy with stillbirth of first child, a son, has two daughters, falls in love with and has boundary-busting affair with local radicalised firebrand as meantime her fat and rather pathetic husband dreams of going home to Bangladesh a big man. There are also sub-plots about tragedy at home in Bengal, an avaricious female money-lender and Nazneen’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee) sister.
That’s a lot to be going on with, and the film fails to cope with it all. While some of the photography, especially the early scenes in Bangladesh, is very lovely, there’s no sense of any of the passions that must have driven the characters. Nazneen’s affair with Karim (Christopher Simpson) comes out of nowhere: one minute he’s dropping off jeans for her to sew together and they’re exchanging the odd smouldering look, the next they’re romping in bed.
Any married woman, even one hitched to someone as absurd as Chanu (Satish Kaushik), would agonise about this, but there is no sense that this a momentous step for a very traditional Muslim wife in a small and gossipy community. Likewise Karim’s increasing radicalisation as racist thugs torment the Asian residents in the aftermath of September 11: this is indicated by the clumsy visual device of having him gradually exchange his jeans and shirt for traditional dress and a beard. There is no insight into his heart and his head as he makes the journey from assimilation to alienation.
Nazneen telling Chanu that she loves him towards the end of the film comes as a surprise: yes, she waits on him hand and (literally) foot, but love doesn’t seem to be in her emotional range, neither for him nor for Karim. The cataclysm of September 11, which changed both the wider world and lives of individuals, falls surprisingly flat: it’s done as a quick shot of aghast men standing around a TV as the second plane hits. This should be a cathartic watershed, and it’s not – it’s just a passing moment.
There are some redeeming factors. Chatterjee as Nazneem is exquisitely beautiful and she has an enchanting stillness about her that a confident director would have exploited further against the backdrop of teeming east London. Kaushik as Chanu acts his socks off despite the limited material he has to work with, giving a performance that both capitalises on the comedy and delivers on the pathos. This, however, is much more a credit to Kaushik, an experienced Indian comedy actor who understands the truth in the old cliché that clowns are inherently tragic, than to the director Sarah Gavron, who struggles to make sense of the material.
The best performance of all, though, comes from Naeema Begum, 14, who plays Nazneem and Chanu’s older daughter Shahana. Her utterly believable and involving performance takes you into the world of this teenager, caught between her very traditional family and her London milieu – and her performance is in stark contrast to most of the others. Worst of all, though, is the pace of the film, which is at all times absolutely glacial – there is no variation at all in it. The running time is only just over an hour and a half: it feels much longer, and not in a good way.
SECOND OPINION | Robert Hull ***** It’s a hard job slicing up a 500-page, hugely popular novel and turning into a film that satisfies everyone, but the team behind Brick Lane has accomplished this, and beautifully. Not only does the film deliver a feast for the eyes with its vivid and lyrical scenes set in Bangladesh, but it also provides a realistic portrait of life in contemporary London. Director Sarah Gavron’s debut feature also manages to tackle social and political issues without resorting to sledgehammer tactics, and what’s more, within its many strands, weaves a genuinely emotional love story. Based on Monica Ali’s novel, originally published in 2003, Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen (Chatterjee). Her life is changed, when at 17 her mother’s suicide prompts Nazneen’s remaining family to arrange a marriage for her — with a partner she has never met, who is thousands of miles away in London. Torn from the Bangladesh she is learning to love and a younger sister with whom each day is an adventure, Nazneen suddenly finds herself playing the role of a wife.
Life moves on, and we rediscover Nazneen as the mother of two young girls (one a difficult teen’) and the wife of Chanu (Satish Kaushik), a husband with a very traditional approach to family, but not always to employment. Into this marriage comes Karim, (Christopher Simpson), a local merchant’s son, who Nazneen meets when she starts working from home as a seamstress. Karim and Nazneen’s blossoming relationship is set against the backdrop of a life lived in the contradiction of the East End. Old communities moved on, new communities developing, and all of this within sight of the ‘money’ of London’s financial district. The majority of Brick Lane is played out in the atmosphere created after the attack of September 11, and Nazneen and Karim’s affair develops within a Muslim community that is scared, angry and increasingly politicised. The performances throughout are note-perfect, but amid the passion and turbulence it is Satish Kaushik who shines brightest.
As Chanu, Nazneen’s husband, he manages the almost impossible feat of making you feel affection for a character it would be so easy to have turned into a monster. Ultimately, Chanu’s spirit is as lost in Brick Lane as Nazneen’s appears to be, but in a tenderly delivered finale you’re left with the feeling that they have both understood and accepted where their paths lie. Hugely entertaining and thought provoking, Brick Lane is a film to be savoured.