BRICK LANE Directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Laura Jones and Abi Morgan from the book by Monica Ali, with Tannishtha Chatterjee, Christopher Simpson and Satish Kaushik. A Mongrel release. 108 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (July 4). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNNN
If you’re crazy about a book, you’ll almost always be disappointed by its film version – unless, of course, you’re talking The Lord Of The Rings, which had something like eight hours to cover the story.
In the case of Monica Ali’s brilliant novel Brick Lane (number one on NOW’s 2004 top-10 list), the film gives us only a small slice of the narrative.
It’s beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan – the Brick Lane estates are made to look almost like a prison fortress – and well acted, especially by Tannishtha Chatterjee and Satish Kaushik as a couple in an arranged marriage.
Fans of the novel, however, will definitely feel like something’s missing.
The film’s story begins as 14-year-old Nazneen is leaving Bangladesh and her sister to meet her new husband, Chanu, who lives in the Brick Lane projects in London, England. Then, suddenly, it’s 16 years later, the couple have two daughters and Nazneen is profoundly dissatisfied with her life.
A next-door neighbour has a home-grown sewing industry happening and engages Nazneen to sew jeans. She falls hard for fabric delivery guy Karim (Christopher Simpson), who, aside from being many years her junior, is also a Muslim radical activist who opens new doors, both political and sexual, for Nazneen in ways that make her question, well, everything.
For some, that might be story enough, but it feels like adaptors Laura Jones and Abi Morgan caved in to the intense pressure from the real-life Brick Lane community. Muslim Bengals in the projects succeeded in halting production there because they didn’t like the way Ali portrays the Bengali Muslim community. At issue is the way she conveys the collision between old-country and Western values. The book gives us drug-addicted kids (nowhere in sight in the film, which also plays down the ever-rising rebelliousness of the older daughter), some visceral post-9/11 political conflict within the Bengali community (eviscerated from the adaptation) and the trying first 16 years of an arranged marriage (glossed over here).
The adaptors also fail to mine another crucial aspect of the book. The complex relationship between Nazneen and Chanu, which does actually blossom into love, is portrayed by Ali via what can only be described as a literary miracle. Chanu is a patriarchal personality, fat and demanding, but he works hard, loves his children and seeks a dignity for himself and his daughters that’s hard to find in racist London. Readers, initially repelled by Chanu, warm to him as the novel unfolds.
That doesn’t happen in the movie. The screenwriters (Jones has a mixed track record – she scored with Angel At My Table but went way south with A Thousand Acres) are forced, in the second-last scene, to use Ali’s perfect prose in voice-over, describing the way love develops over time in an arranged marriage.
It’s a big, fat cheat.