Review by Jack Foley
IN NOVEL form, Brick Lane (by Monica Ali) was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2003 and became a bestseller despite being criticised by some members of the Bangladeshi community in Britain for what they viewed as the negative portrayal of people from the Sylhet region.
In film form, it’s an intriguing look at the life of a young Bangladeshi immigrant that explores some very relevant contemporary issues in sensitive and thought-provoking fashion.
It’s far from perfect but the protests surrounding the film – that contributed to it being dropped as this year’s royal film gala – do seem a little out of context.
Tannishtha Chatterjee plays the young woman at the centre of the story, named Nazneen, who is forced to enter into an arranged marriage with the much older Chanu (Satish Kaushik) and move to England at the age of 17.
The bulk of the film takes place as Nazneen, struggling to cope with the demands of motherhood and her own disillusionment, reluctantly accepts an offer of work by sewing clothes at home.
The job subsequently brings her into contact with Karim (Christopher Simpson), the handsome young man who delivers and collects the goods, and a relationship develops that offers Nazneen a possible way out.
But matters come to a head following the 9/11 attacks on America when divisions begin to split the community into those who feel alienated, those who want to help and those who wish to strike back against anti-Muslim feeling.
Sarah Gavron’s film actually comes into its own during the latter half of proceedings, when it offers a convincing examination of racial tensions in Britain and provides Nazneen with some really difficult choices.
It’s when Satish Kaushik’s Chanu, in particular, contributes one memorable moment and proves to be a far more complex and sympathetic character than at first glance. And it provides Chatterjee with the tools she needs to present Nazneen as a well-rounded character who wrestles with some difficult emotions in extremely dignified fashion.
Crucially, there are no clear-cut heroes and villains and Gavron’s film doesn’t attempt to preach or manipulate our emotions.
There are, however, certain issues surrounding the depiction of Britain itself, where the cold, dark greys of Brick Lane are deliberately offset against the rich colours of Bangladesh during Nazneen’s flashbacks to her youth.
Given the sensitivity surrounding the depiction of various Bangladeshi regions, it would be easy to be just as picky from a British point of view. But then it’s clear that Gavron’s film, at its heart, hasn’t set out to offend anyone and largely succeeds in providing a balanced perspective.
The film also takes a little too long to find its stride and requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer. But given the overall quality of the performances and the insight it affords into some very contemporary issues – notably, what it means to be a Bangladeshi immigrant in Britain – Brick Lane provides focused and intelligent viewing.
Running time: 1hr 41mins
UK DVD Release: March 10, 2008