Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane is the kind of movie a critic would just as soon let pass without comment. Unchallenging and inoffensive, it gives little to work with, its soft-focus take on a rich novel less outrageous than enervating. The potential for a banalized transposition was always there. Monica Ali’s bestseller approached issues of cultural dislocation and female empowerment with sensitivity and nuance, but faint whiffs of Lifetime wafted through at certain moments. In Gavron’s hands, those shortcomings find their full flowering. If you had never read Ali’s novel, no one would blame you if after Gavron’s movie you thought it was a high-toned, paperback romance for housewives.
Opening with idyllic images of the Bangladeshi countryside, Brick Lane doesn’t waste time amping up the melodrama. Sisters Nazneen and Hasini play in the fields, even as their mother, in ominous flash cuts, drowns herself in the river (in the book, she dies a different, perhaps less soap-operatic, death). Nazneen in due course gets sent by her father to England for an arranged marriage. Cut to London, 2001: Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), walks the gray streets of Brick Lane, the lush Shangri-La of her childhood a constant waking dream. Shaving off a good chunk of the novel, which depicts Nazneen’s adjustment to life in England in the 1980s, the movie does a good job of suggesting an adulthood lived in disappointment—we hear of an infant son who died years earlier, observe a squalid apartment grown too small for Nazneen’s family of four, hear of dreams of a return that she has grown used to stifling.
Into this delicate ecosystem intrudes Karim (Christopher Simpson), a young man who becomes Nazneen’s lover. Unlike the book, whose view is more panoramic, the screenplay by Abi Morgan and Laura Jones puts the affair front and center. Click here to read the rest of Elbert Ventura’s review of Brick Lane.