Jun 17, 2008

On Brick Lane

More matter, less art. Although it often visually contemplates the lush natural beauty of the Bangladeshi wilds or Tannishtha Chatterjee’s face, this lingering over such pleasing details adds up to little more than empty exoticism in Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane, a movie that can’t sustain much visceral drive despite the potentially fascinating tale at its core, one which holds the promise of an all to rare glimpse into the lives of working class Southeastern Asian immigrants in contemporary London. It’s a polished and mannered effort on the part of a director with clear gifts, but one whose feeling for the inner lives of her characters feels undercooked. In joins a tradition of handsome, but not terribly effecting adaptations of modern British literary sensations, such as Joe Wright’s Oscar nominated take on Ian McEwan’s Atonement or the BBC’s miniseries treatment of Zadie Smith’s sublime White Teeth.

Monica Ali’s well-regarded debut novel is set in the Bengali sects buried within London’s drab suburb, Brick Lane. In the early 1980s, after the untimely, perhaps suicidal death of her mother, Nazneen (Chatterjee) leaves behind her free-spirited sister and relocates to London. She’s been married off to a fat, educated man Chanu (Satish Kaushik) and quickly, at least in the film, which substitutes a deft montage for a large chunk of her festering Thatcher/Major era disillusionment, enters a life of marital unhappiness, providing him with three children, one of which was lost in childbirth, and plenty of boring sex. Finally 2001 comes, Chanu wants to return his family to their Bengali roots by moving back home, but Nazneen is finding herself increasingly distracted by the charms of tall, twentysomething Karim, (Christopher Simpson), a local kid who helps her around the house before engaging in a torrid affair with her. Of course, 9/11 changes everything, causing Karim, a vocal member of a local Muslim activist organization, to grow increasingly radical. Despite being a borish, self satisfied fat ass, Chanu’s moderate political stance and mature sense of his Bengaliness begin to seem more appearing to Nazneen, who, unlike so many classic British literary heroines, doesn’t find political and social awakening in sexual liberation, although she’s ultimately able to discover just what she wants – to be left alone.

Gavron along with her cinematographer Robbie Ryan strain to create a rich, densely colorful palette in the Bengali sequences, while shooting London’s backwaters in cool blues, yellows and low saturation grays to create a since of maximum sterility. But in reaching for sensuousness and style, Gavron has forgotten to spin her tale in a way that lifts it above the banal concerns of a made for basic cable weepie and was never able to genuinely win over my emotional participation in the events. Its clear that Ali has written a work clearly engaged in the world, a thoughtful and timely novel, but its concerns have not been dramatized in a way that allows them to resonate back out into that world, its cool dissection of the ways in which British provincialism insidiously effect the lives of its often forgotten immigrants made secondary in Gavron’s hands. Sadly, she empathizes what movies can capture with great ease, but with little nuance or care: salaciousness and aesthetic beauty. Makes me want to pick up the book instead.