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Sarah Gavron's screen adaptation of Monica Ali's Brick Lane (with a script by Laura Jones and Abi Morgan) abounds in compromises so extensive as to seem to be capitulations: vast tracts of the grindingly moving novel go unfilmed. It would be rash to assert the impossibility of making a substantial faithful film out of Brick Lane, even at miniseries length, but the difficulties would be forbidding. For one thing, it would be necessary to illustrate the ghetto quality of East London life for a pious Bangladeshi woman who does not speak much English and whose thoughts, for a long time, are so focused on returning "home" that she pays no more attention to her actual surroundings than she has to. Monica Ali depicts a bleak environment that, on film, might strike audiences as little better than a jail. On the page Nazneen Ahmed's life is grim enough. On screen, it would make the story of Patient Griselda at least as appealing, by comparison, as Snow White's.
But Brick Lanesucceeds as a film, because the director trusts her star, Tannishtha Chatterjee (Nazneen), to carry us on her character's route to a personal autonomy unknown in her native society. This trust is utterly cinematic: the camera counts on Ms Chatterjee to register the physical manifestation of Nazneen's growing resistance to authority (and assertion of her own) in ways that are never other than winning and attractive. The actress is undoubtedly an obviously beautiful woman, but her beauty has been banked and pushed behind her skin, so that we see its glow more clearly than its features. The film's Nazneen is never a victim of oppression, but rather a woman working out the problem of taking action in the world. That this requires little or no thought for men should not distract us into branding Brick Lane as a feminist film: its feminism is a lesser included quality, wholly subsumed in a deeply humanist reflection on the idea and reality of "home."
For viewers who have not read the book, Brick Lane will benefit from a second look, because it inevitably triggers anxieties, ultimately irrelevant, that have been conditioned by stories running from Romeo & Juliet to Madame Bovary. It does not take long for the movie to hurl Nazneen — whose older husband, Chanu (Satish Kausik), is an overweight, fatuous underachiever — into the arms of Karim (Christopher Simpson). Karim is not just a handsome youth but the man who delivers possibility, quite literally, on a weekly basis. Karim regularly drops off heaps of piece-work — jeans and dresses — at the Ahmeds' council estate flat, and when Nazneen has sewn them up, he comes to fetch them. Once he begins taking his own clothes off on these visits, it is difficult not to fear that the lovers will be caught and horribly punished. Sacrificing such excitements, Ms Gavron relies on Ms Chatterjee to show us what the discovery of reciprocated desire can do to a fundamentally serious human being.
In truth, Ms Gavron relies on her cast and crew to deliver one perfectly calibrated scene after another. Naeema Begum, who plays Nazneen's older daughter, Shahana, is presented as a teenager trapped in the coils of adolescence, a girl who has not yet found her look as a woman. There is a shapelessness about her that expresses with persistent subtlety the stress of being growing up in London while belonging to a determinedly unassimilated household. (Chanu's embrace of various Western marvels — the novels of Thackeray, the personal computer — serves to underscore his immigrant identity.) Shahana would probably be miserable in the best of environments, but the one that she finds herself in drives her to demand courage of her mother. Meanwhile, the younger sister, Bibi (Lana Rahman), hardly says a peep but never drops her surveillant glare. The naturalness with which the four actors convey the illusion of a very cramped family testifies to Sarah Gavron's command of her medium.
Monica Ali's novel features three characters who appear in the movie on severely cut-down terms. Dr Azad (Harsh Nayyar) is in fact so reduced that I'm not sure of the value of introducing him at all. More interesting, but also tantalizing to readers of the novel, are Nazneen's liberated neighbor, Razia (Harvey Virdi) — Razia has cut her hair — and the community usurer, Mrs Islam (Lalita Ahmen, who bears more than a passing resemblance here to the late Peggy Ashcroft). It is perhaps for the best that we don't see more of these women. They might make us discontented with Brick Lane's compromises. I mean that as a compliment all round. (August 2008)
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