Based on the acclaimed novel by Monica Ali, Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen (Chatterjee). After the death of her mother she is plucked from her small village and married off to 'educated man' Chanu Ahmed (Kaushik) who is living abroad. But the ideals aren't quite lived up to, and we flash forward to her council flat near Brick Lane, in London's East End, and her obese husband who spends most of his time in his idealised dream world.
Here the plot unfolds with Nazneen gradually undergoing a sexual awakening in the foreground as she embarks on an affair, and in the background we have the tumultuous build up to and aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. The film skips large parts of the novel to reach the emotional peaks in a well-rounded and compact package, and it comes off pretty well. All of the rich themes of the novel are more or less condensed into the hour and forty minutes, and Nazneen's rich inner world on which a majority of the novel is based is captured through varied use of colour — particularly the contrast between her vivid nostalgia-tinged memories of Bangladesh and the dull, grey world of the council estate she inhabits in the present.
The actors also provide stellar performances, and all of the cast capture the essences of their characters. In particular Satish Kaushik does admirably well in transferring his talents, more usually applied to comic roles, to the tragi-comic figure of bumbling husband Chanu. The role is sensitively scripted, avoiding the usual digs at arranged marriages and the minefield presented by the myths, stereotypes and prejudices surrounding home life for the Muslim family, but nonetheless not sidestepping the problems raised by unions of this type. Chanu comes across as something of a fool, but a noble one, and one whose inner decency really shines through in a scene late in the film where he actively argues against more reactionary Muslims proposing united community action in the face of the 9/11 backlash — refusing to become a part of a segregated community which, as he sees it, will only exacerbate problems. Nazneen is depicted with care and sensitivity, her unnervingly repetitive furtive glances or, conversely, hopeful gazes into the distance, do begin to lose their impact after about an hour but this can be forgiven in what is otherwise an intelligently acted role.
Brick Lane is designed to cover a lot of ground, but also tries not to tread on too many toes. In its balancing act it succeeds in addressing some interesting cultural phenomena in contemporary society whilst at the same time making it into a universal story of family, commitment and identity. Where it loses points for its lack of adventurousness and controversy, it wins them back with warmth and intimately crafted cinematography.
EXTRAS **½ The usual stuff, but produced to a high standard. There's a great conversation between author Monica Ali and veteran filmmaker Hanif Kaureshi which gives plenty of insights into depictions of Islamic communities in their respective artforms. There's also commentaries from director Sarah Gavron and producer Chris Collins, a "making of" documentary and a number of interviews with members of cast and crew.