Screenwriter: Abi Morgan and Laura Jones
Starring: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson
Running time: 101 mins
Brick Lane is the haunting and moving tale of the plight suffered by a young Bangladeshi girl in the alien, oppressive environment of inner city London. Exploring themes such as cultural and gender identity, Sarah Gavron's film deftly combines naturalist and expressionist elements to superb effect, enabling the narrative to transcend its origins as a novel.
We follow the story of Nazneen, whose life is suddenly changed after her mother dies and she is packed off to England, minus her beloved sister, for an arranged marriage with a real loser. Keeping in touch with her sister via letters from the confines of her East London flat, she soon has a family on her hands but struggles to do her duty to her increasingly delusional and obese husband. After years of quiet suffering, Nazneen's life takes a sudden turn when she falls for the charms of a young jean salesman called Karim.
Much of Brick Lane's effectiveness is built upon bold juxtapositions. On a visual level, Nazneen's shattered dreams are driven home through flashbacks of the luscious Bangladeshi landscapes she grew up in, the total opposite of the oppressive spatial environment of her council flat. Gavron's direction, bathed in a serene, contemplative stillness at times, is a vital factor in enabling the film to avoid the pitfalls endured by many literary adaptations – namely dwelling too much on the text and forgetting how important imagery can be.
Nazneen's situation is a fascinating blend of grim reality and idealised hope, which contributes towards a strong sense of yearning for her selfless predicament to drastically improve. When Nazneen does betray her oafish, obese husband for a dashing, attractive salesman (admittedly, hardly the most subtle of juxtapositions), we take pleasure from her empowerment. This is a pleasing shift in her character, who earlier raised issues of female subordination within her culture by stating: "If Allah wanted us to ask questions he'd have made us men."
Plaudits deserve to be heaped upon Tannishtha Chatterjee for her central performance, allowing us a window into the extreme internal conflicts in Nazneen's kind soul. A somewhat mournful narration combines well with the stillness of the images to underline her bleak existence.
Sdatish Kaushik is marvellous as the grotesque husband Chanu in a very tricky role indeed. Fooling no one but himself with his promises of success and literary pretensions, the character could easily have become a one-dimensional caricature without such a wonderful performance. There's a sense of fiery rage and hurt lurking deep within his eyes as the dream becomes ripped at the seams and his wife and children drift away from him emotionally. The pivotal scene where Chanu snaps out of his perpetual cowardice at an Islamist meeting, defying the mocking youths around him, is a fine example of Kaushik's talents to both move and surprise us.
There is the occasional moment when events feel slightly contrived, such as when the sweeping romance of Brief Encounter crops up on the television just as Navneen crops a corn on her husband's bulbous toe. In addition, the quick change in Karim's character from Del Boy-ish wheeler-dealer to extremist is jarring and missing any notions of character development in favour of using him as a cipher, a mere plot device. But these do not detract significantly from the quality of the film.
Forcing us to address key social issues that pervade contemporary Britain, Brick Lane is a refreshing change from the overblown, contrived Hollywood fare. Very clever direction does justice to the emotive narrative, with wonderfully understated performances from Chatterjee and Kaushik.