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Film Review: Brick Lane, by Sarah Gavron

An hour into Brick Lane I was all set to hate it.  It seemed to be trying to sell me a brand of moral that I associate more with Disney films, where the most important thing in life is to be true to yourself, as long as being true to yourself means being white and middle class, or if you’re not, behaving like you are.  But – though I’m still not certain there isn’t some element of truth in that – it recovers so drastically and so effectively in its last half hour that it’s hard to care.

Brick Lane follows Bangladeshi woman Nazneen, who’s taken away from her home and sister in an arranged marriage to a much older man, Chanu, who’s fat, ugly, and none too bright, and whose only apparent virtue is a good education.  Early in the film, and nearly twenty years after Nazneen’s arrival in England and the grim London estate of the title, he decides to quit his job, throwing their tenuously-balanced life and marriage into turmoil.  Nazneen befriends a neighbour, takes work sewing clothes, becomes involved with a local political action group, and finally embarks on an affair with her new boss Karim.

Through all of this, Laura Jones and Abi Morgan’s script seems to give tacit approval to everything their heroine does, as though it’s okay for her to cheat on her husband because he is, after all, not much to look at and a bit of an idiot.  To some extent it’s also a fault in Tannishtha Chatterjee’s performance that her pursuit of happiness and fulfilment at the expense of her family comes over as selfish and slightly brattish rather than sympathetic.  Probably this is one element of the media furore surrounding Monica Ali’s book and this adaptation.  We’re given Nazneen’s perspective but little else, so that the Bangladeshi community she’s isolated from, her unloved husband, and her newfound country are portrayed in a way that’s bound to raise a few heckles.

In another sense, though, Brick Lane‘s subjectivity is a strength, and it starts to improve if you recognize that all we’re being offered is Nazneen’s singular and very biased perspective.  Director Gavron seems much more interested in that kind of intimacy than in any larger questions surrounding the immigrant experience.  It’s a sensible move that eventually pays dividends, but Gavron could have made more of it.  Sometimes the camera gives insights into Nazneen’s world – her childhood in Bangladesh is shot with the unreal beauty of a fairy tale – but Gavron likes her pretty shots too much to let us see real ugliness, so that even inner city London is oddly attractive.

As I said, Brick Lane recovers remarkably in its final third, changing from an intermittently dull study of one woman’s quest for fulfillment to something altogether more complex and impressive.  The reason for that is husband Chanu – as played, superbly, by Satish Kaushik – and the way his character develops.  Very slowly we start to see (as Nazneen sees) that he’s something more than the blundering fool he first appears to be – he’s a man terribly aware of his own weaknesses, who’s floundering in life, but at the same time utterly devoted to his family and, by the end, possessed of real nobility. 

His transformation, like much of the closing third, is handled with a sensitivity that seems absent from preceding scenes until you look back and realize how deftly it’s been set up.  Brick Lane turns out to be more sophisticated, and far more poignant, than you’d think it could be from the first hour.  It takes an age to go somewhere, but really is worth persevering with, because by its end it offers some of the year’s best and most touching drama.