by Isabel SuttonI haven’t actually read the Booker prize short-listed novel Brick Lane but, having seen the film, I’m certain it deserves all the praise it receives. As to its recent adaptation for screen – I’m not so sure.
The tale is of a young Bangladeshi girl, Nazneen (Tannishta Chatterjee), who is fixed up in marriage with an unknown older man with whom she is sent to live. His home is in London, amongst the Bangladeshi community of Brick Lane, where they live in a council flat with two daughters. The film follows Nazneen as she dreams continually of life in Bangladesh, a vision which is fuelled by her sister’s letters. It is only when she becomes attached to Karim (Christopher Simpson) – a young man who runs a clothes business and sends the material to Nazneen to be sewn – that her perspective on life in Britain changes.
Brick Lane is a story full of interesting dimensions: the psychological struggle of Nazneen; the subtle dynamics between herself and her intriguing husband Chanu Ahmed (Satish Kaushik II); the nature of love; the social tensions which emerge after 9/11 and the reactions of Karim and the Muslim community. There is one significant problem, however – none of these are visual themes.
The beauty and colour of Bangladesh, which fills the screen at the opening of the film, becomes a faraway world which we occasionally glimpse through Nazneen’s imagination. In reality, her eyes stare out on the bleak landscape of council buildings and a grey British sky, and this is the backdrop that dominates the film.
The focus of the story lies in Nazneen’s thoughts and emotions – the letters she receives from Bangladesh and the hopes she harbours of a return. But the film can only hint at this through a mood of suppressed tension and melancholy. Nazneen is a character silenced by the misery of her predicament, and it isn’t easy to penetrate her psychology on screen.
Once in a while there is an image which catches your attention: the vivid saris worn by the women in Bangladesh are still worn against the grim background of London streets: Nazneen’s figure stands out like a jewel against her concrete block of flats. Later we see the cloth of Nazneen’s sari unwind in a wave of colour, and witness her admiration for the sequined dresses in the market where Karin sells his clothes.
The film draws to a close with a dramatic chase through the streets of London: Nazneen’s teenage daughter, Shahana, runs out of the house in a fury at her father, closely followed by her panicked mother. The camera darts through the darkness, blinded by the city lights: Nazneen keeps on running and running until she finds Shahana collapsed on a station platform. Nazneen travels great distances through the strory – both physically and emotionally – and this becomes apparent in her desperate chase. With scenes like this one, the film adaptation doesn’t entirely fail in conveying the power of the narrative.