Monica Aliís bestselling tale of a young Bangladeshi woman cooped up in an East London estate and a loveless marriage caught the nationís imagination by offering a heady mix: a glimpse into a secret world on our doorstep, an insiderís perspective on growing political tension in London, raunchy interludes in modern-day Bangladesh, and a thrilling, knight-in-shining-armour romance.
Unsurprisingly, this tender little film manages a much smaller scope. Employing hand-held camerawork and constant, almost suffocating close-ups, new director Sarah Gavron neatly evokes the introversion of the domestic world which traps the lead character, Nazneen, an unhappy wife who begins a search for independence through an affair.
Itís easy to understand why the camera stays glued to her face: Tannishtha Chatterjeeís performance is spellbinding, mixing a maidenly shyness with world-worn sorrow. Supporting roles are also strong, with familiar British-Asian star Christopher Simmonds offering a compelling portrait of Karim, a likeable young man trying to make sense of heady times. Satish Kaushik fares worse as Nazneenís tragic-comic husband, Chanu, however, and comes across more as an object of ridicule than a force to be reckoned with.
But while the result is a soulful, intense film, beautifully scored and shot, itís also rather po-faced. In focusing so heavily on the tiny details of Nazneenís smothered life, it loses sight of context, and fails to make sense of many of its charactersí decisions. The genuine cultural power commanded by the local moneylender, Mrs Islam, and the moment of revelation when Nazneen finally understands her as a 'usurerí, are both hastily sketched out, missing an opportunity for understanding the religious and social dynamics of the community.
Fans of the book may be a little disappointed. In transferring the sprawl of the source text, the fun adventures of Nazneenís errant sister Bibi have been lost. The ending is significantly less intelligent: instead of the women coming together to support each other in pragmatic ways, weíre left with more dreamy introspection. Nazneenís involvement with sewing is rather patronisingly romanticised.
Brick Laneís most interesting sequences arise when it breaks beyond the confines of Nazneenís cloistered world. The advent of 9/11 is forcefully shot in a way which perfectly evokes that sense of 'Where were you whenÖ?í And a climatic scene forces Nazneen out into a more familiar Brick Lane, the one of neon restaurant signs and late-night pub crawls Ė forcing us to consider the relationship between the culture we take for granted and the microcosms within.
Yet the filmmakers have taken a rather blunt approach to the possibilities of intersection between Nazneenís world and the wider context. With 9/11, according to writer Abi Morgan, 'the wider world starts to reflect Nazneenís inner, personal world.í A more interesting film would have explored a more subtle, two-way relationship between the internal and the external.
Brick Lane sticks resolutely to its guns as an introspective, feminist indie, losing much of its potential for broad appeal. Worth seeing for its beauty, it fumbles the more interesting nuances of its subject-matter, and ends up memorable but not insightful.