London calling: Brick Lane

Shane Murray 22 November 2007

Brick Lane is the latest film derived from a source of popular but well-respected literature, following on from the numerous McEwan adaptations and the television adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It is perhaps appropriate, considering that the book was a rip-off and fudge of Rushdie and Smith, that this film constantly feels forced, derivative and messy.

Detailing the story of Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who comes to live in London by way of an arranged marriage to a much older man, Brick Lane is never clear as to whether it is about personal lives, the cost of leaving home or the life of Muslims in Britain. The overall storyline, as to whether Nazneen should go back to Bangladesh with her husband, attempts to convey all of these ideas but fails to invest any of them with any meaningful sense of depth.

Perhaps the least convincing thread of the film is that regarding Nazneen’s feelings for her homeland, where she grew up. Bangladesh is presented as a Technicolour rural idyll, with the poverty of life there being entirely absent. Never before has a third world country looked so much like the vision of first world backpackers. This isn’t to deny that it might be rational for someone to want to live in Bangladesh, it’s just that the film makes a bizarre (if brilliantly illustrated) comparison between London and rural Bangladesh. Nazneen’s eventual decision about whether to stay or go should be a mature exploration about what home means and what defines it, but her logic and reasoning remain utterly mystifying and hidden to boot.

The film suffers largely from being adapted from a novel because so much clearly goes unsaid in the relationships between the main characters. In a novel, this can easily be woven into the narrative, but on screen, the emotions of the characters fail to come alive. Nazneen’s relationships with her husband and Karim, the young radical she is having an affair with, seem to leap from one emotional position to another with no idea of why this position has been reached. As a result, the film is frustrating as a personal journey for Nazneen and it fails to connect this emotional journey to the one concerning her feelings for Bangladesh.

The worst point in the film, however, is when the time-set plot catches up to 9/11. This is used an excuse to wedge a storyline about Islamic extremism into the film. The alleging of Islamic extremism in Brick Lane caused controversy when the book was first released and it always seemed to have been constructed artificially to attract attention. It certainly adds nothing to the storyline and feels incredibly awkward in the film. Karim’s growing radicalisation is witnessed mainly through his growing beard and wearing of traditional Islamic clothing and his apparently changing political views have no impact whatsoever with his relationship with Nazneen.

Worst of all, the film ducks exploring extremism and its roots at all, with the “Bengal Tigers” being portrayed as a mildly annoyed version of a community watch. The cause of extremism is a bland depiction of a faint feeling of persecution and fails to shed any insight whatsoever into its subject.

Brick Lane is a film with something to say, but is unfortunately terribly burdened with its ideas about the world. Any life the film and plot has is crushed by the weight of its “message” which doesn’t even come out clearly.

Shane Murray