Brick Lane, Monica Ali's 2003 novel, is a tale of transition. Nazneen emigrates from an idyllic childhood in rural Bangladesh into an arranged marriage with a middle-aged "educated" man, Chanu, and onto a bleak council estate (Britspeak for housing project) in the Bengali district of East London, the "Brick Lane" of the title.
The move from novel to film is just as bewildering as and much more frustrating than Nazneen's journey from "simple village girl" to émigré Londoner. Rather than trying to stuff 400 pages of novel into two or three hours of film, director Sarah Gavron and three screenwriters have trimmed crucial aspects of Nazneen's story to fit a shorter movie.
The film shows Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) living the subaltern role of dutiful wife and devout Muslim, largely sheltered from London. The novel linked much of Nazneen's isolation to what is perhaps an immigrant's greatest barrier to assimilation, illiteracy in her adopted country's tongue, yet onscreen, all the characters speak (sometimes fractured) English.
And when Nazneen's dormant passions arise after she meets the handsome young London-born Muslim delivery man Karim (Christopher Simpson), who delivers the jeans she sews at home in a bid for financial independence, the censorious feelings of sin prompted by her religious devotion, so prominent in the novel, are absent. To this critic's Western eyes, she does not seem that different from Diane Lane in Unfaithful.
The film attempts to span many different worlds. In his review of the novel, critic James Wood mentions the greater difficulty facing immigrants in class-bound Britain than those arriving in the United States' ostensibly free-for-all society. He also emphasizes the novel's 19th-century sensibility. Immigrant cultures are often bound to duty toward marriage and religion, as epitomized in 20th-century Western novels. To twist British writer L. P. Hartley's aphorism, a foreign country is the past; they do things differently there. By truncating the novel, however, the filmmakers produced a Bengali film fit for the Lifetime Channel.
Despite its abruptness, Brick Lane captures the persistence and endurance of immigrants in the bleak brick estates of East London. Nazneen spends most of the time in her underlit flat. Her flashback remembrances of the lush Bengali countryside of her childhood are bright as tropical fruit, and the contrast is heartrending.
Nazneen at first obeys if not adores her husband Chanu (Satish Kaushik). She cuts his corns as he discusses his latest get-rich-quick plan, which doesn't pan out; she tolerates his nighttime snoring. Chanu could be a stock dominant husband, but Kaushik brings a sweet quixotic optimism to his attempts at getting ahead and disciplining his teen and tween daughters.
Although this is Nazneen's story, the failed but smiling Chanu is the most fully realized character in the film. He accurately predicts that the Sept. 11 attacks will foment a racial backlash, similar to what he faced when he immigrated to England in the 1950s. While the political subplot seems bolted-on, the film's final image finds a family idyll in a very cold place.
'Brick Lane' opens on Friday, June 27, at the Century CineArts Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.4862.
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