In the prologue for Brick Lane, young Nazneen and her beloved sister Hasina (Zafreen) play together during what will be their last carefree moments on this earth. Their mother looks at them sullenly, and through a series of close-ups and cuts, the film practically screams out: Mom's going to commit suicide! She does, and the film expects us to be surprised and shocked. Nazneen is shipped off to London for an arranged marriage, and by the time the credits finish, Nazneen has been there long enough to raise two 'tween girls.
The time jump is a bit jarring, and it's done with the same carelessness as the prologue. But soon we meet Nazneen's husband, a fat, cartoonish lout, Chanu (Satish Kaushik), who is apparently educated and well-read but who lacks the most basic elements of common sense. When he mentions the promotion that he's sure to get at his job, we know it's all over for him. Nobody ever gets a promotion in the first reel of a movie, but Chanu doesn't know that, nor do the filmmakers. It's as infuriating as watching teenagers in horror films split up to search the woods.
Based on an acclaimed and triumphant 2003 first novel by Monica Ali, which was shortlisted for a Booker Prize, the film Brick Lane lazily relies upon the book's prestige to get by. I haven't read the book, but I'm told that the screenwriters Laura Jones (a talented veteran scribe behind many good films) and Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron have excised huge chunks to get the film down to a manageable time. None of that should matter, as we're no longer talking about a book here. It's merely a story that has made the transition to a new art form, which should be able to stand by itself. It doesn't. The entire film has a kind of pre-arranged admiration for the source material; it comes from readers/fans of a famous book rather than authors of new cinema. While the filmmakers may have been pleased as they re-created their favorite pages on film, they failed to notice that the new, filmic scenes just didn't work. Each and every dramatic or artistic problem is met with the most obvious answer. It's unbearably lifeless.
Tannishtha Chatterjee stars as the grown-up, sad Nazneen. She has not seen her beloved sister in all this time and dreams of going back to Bangladesh for a visit. Her husband's stupidity, as well as the fact that he insists on ruling the family, keeps dragging down her hopes. After he loses his job, he borrows money to buy a computer, which he (of course) doesn't know how to use. Worse, the lender is the most notorious lady loan shark in the neighborhood (she has her own intricate system to make sure the debts are never paid back), and she keeps pestering Nazneen for the cash. Nazneen takes new inspiration from her more radical and forward-thinking neighbor and takes up sewing. (She and the neighbor meet through another movie cliché: Nazneen drops her groceries on the stairs and the neighbor helps pick them up.) The guy who delivers her fabric and supplies is a young hottie, Karim (Christopher Simpson), who is clearly attracted to the older, withdrawn woman.
It's difficult for this demure, traditional woman to succumb to an affair, but she does, otherwise we wouldn't have a movie. Fortunately her husband is too dumb to catch on and everything goes well, until September 11, 2001. I know seven years have passed, but it seems rather tasteless to use 9/11 as a plot twist in a turgid romance like this one. Director Gavron spends a few minutes re-creating the horror and shock of that morning before moving on to the real point of her movie.
The politically active Karim starts growing his beard out and dressing in robes. He also goes to several of those angry movie neighborhood meetings, in which everyone reads speeches that sound written and everyone speaks in turn while everyone else murmurs in the background. Lo and behold, Karim has turned into a terrorist right in front of our eyes! So then Nazneen, who has been totally passive throughout the entire film, must make her first decision: choose the angry guy with the beard or the idiot with the big gut. (Residents of the real Brick Lane community protested the filming of the movie due to degrading portrayals of Bangladeshis. Maybe they were onto something...)
I know this sounds bitter, but these days I have far less patience for bland pictures like Brick Lane than I do for flat-out bad ones. At least the bad pictures have taken some kind of risk. Recent movies by Uwe Boll, Dario Argento and Adam Sandler were technically worse, but I would take them in a heartbeat over the lazy, useless Brick Lane. Gavron, Jones, Morgan appear to be looking for an easy kind of acclaim that seems to come automatically with this kind of movie. I expect that the film's pandering treatment of another culture, and the fact that it was based on a prestigious book, will earn it a generous helping of good reviews. To me, making a film like this is the equivalent of going out and buying a trophy from a shop, rather than doing anything worthy of winning it.(See also our Toronto review.)