Movie News & Reviews

'Brick Lane' meanders

I like crying at movies.

I'm one of those people who feigns a personal connection to characters because I'm self-absorbed and like pretending my mundane life could have been different. So, gearing up to watch "Brick Lane," a film about the difficult life of a Muslim immigrant woman in London -- facing issues I am ostensibly sympathetic toward -- I went in with every intention and hope of sobbing. But I didn't, and I'm sort of irritated about it.

The movie is subtle, sometimes poetic, and it does its best to get you to feel something. But clichés and stereotypes outweigh the story's poignancy, and a meandering plot leaves you bored and irritated.

"Brick Lane" is a film adaptation of Monica Ali's Booker-short list novel of the same name. It's about the modest Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who grows up with her spirited younger sister in a rural Bangladeshi village. One of the first lessons her mother teaches the girls is to always endure. After her mother commits suicide, the sentiment takes on a special meaning throughout the rest of Nazneen's life. She is soon married off to an educated but much older man, the portly Chanu (Satish Kaushik), and sent to London's East End to be a dutiful wife.

The story moves ahead 20 years to a time when Nazneen and Chanu have two daughters. Chanu is the quintessential colonized oaf who thinks his knowledge of Proust will gain him the respect of the wealthiest in British society. He preaches modernization and mocks his traditional Bangladeshi neighbors, yet he keeps his own wife submissive.

Blah blah blah. It's another tragic arranged-marriage story. Nazneen endures, keeping her sari wound tightly around her head, her only escape found through the letters she receives from her sister in Bangladesh.

Things start to get more interesting when Nazneen begins to work out of her home sewing and she meets her boss, young, politically active Karim (a very attractive Christopher Simpson). His pickup visits quickly become more, and Nazneen wonders -- why endure without some enjoyment? The scenes between Karim and Nazneen are tasteful but surprisingly sensual -- the scene with the sari unwrapping particularly steamy.

At the height of action, 9/11 happens, Karim grows more militant (and grows a beard, too, of course), Chanu decides the family should go back to Bangladesh, the daughters rebel and, for the first time in her life, Nazneen must make her own choices.

Director Sarah Gavron does an excellent job at capturing the subtle observations, using color and light in a way that is striking and captures Nazneen's inner evolution in a way the actual writing cannot. But then the plots peter out into nothingness and Gavron shuffles between melodrama and understatement.

Chatterjee's doe eyes and fine features make for a believable restrained housewife, but the restraint in her feelings, even in her voice-overs, makes her hard to relate to. The eldest of Nazneen's daughters is played by a charismatic Naeema Begum in her screen debut. Kaushik's Chanu is the most robust character, but the angry Muslim father role feels tired.

Though it has its own flaws, I thought the movie adaptation of another South Asian novel, "The Namesake," was much more alive than "Brick Lane." Rent that instead; that one did make me cry.