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. With its theme of liberation via sexual awakening, the touchstone seems to be “The Piano.” But try as she might – and the occasional flourish, such as the play of sequins’ reflections on Nazneen’s face, shows she’s trying hard – Gavron is no Jane Campion. Straining for sensuous, Gavron’s approach never gets beyond skin-deep. The foregrounding of the affair also comes at the expense of Ali’s expansive characterizations. The filmmakers reduce the protagonists into soapy cliches, and whittle down the novel’s Dickensian cast of minor characters – a haughty doctor, his pushy wife, a group of gossipy housewives – to a backdrop that barely registers.
Despite its focus on Nazneen, the story’s most indelible character is Chanu (Satish Kaushik), her portly, oblivious husband. Chanu is initially introduced as a gentle buffoon, an educated man whose optimism and self-regard border on the delusional. But, as Nazneen comes to appreciate, Chanu is a fundamentally decent human being, a good father, an appreciative husband, and — not least — an enlightened Muslim who rejects the extremism that 9/11 brings. One key difference between Ali and Gavron is the former’s restraint. In the book, Chanu prepares a ringing peroration for a moderate Islam, only to fold away the speech in a moment of truth — decency trumped by hesitation, a letdown that resonates as genuine. In the movie, the speech is given, a rousing movie moment whose ideas ring true, but whose execution rings false.
For all of the movie’s failings, Kaushik sells his character’s pathos. In Chanu, “Brick Lane” presents an emblem of postcolonial regret that sticks in the mind. If only the movie had cast a broader glance at the community in which he lived. Despite being named for the section of London where the Bangladeshi population has planted roots and flourished, Gavron’s movie offers little nuanced insight into the workings of that community. The events of 9/11, a major plot point in both book and novel, resonate in only the shallowest terms. “Brick Lane” commits the worst sin of the film adaptation, taking the vivid experiences of a book’s characters — dense, contradictory, recognizable — and smoothing them out for midcult consumption.
[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer, whose work has also appeared in Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Republic.]