Brick Lane

Brick Lane


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It's always a shame when the ‘controversy’ over a film threatens to overshadow the film itself – especially when it’s a film as good as this one.

Monica Ali’s Booker shortlisted novel sparked outrage among some sections of the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Britain (particularly in the Tower Hamlets area of east London, the location of the eponymous lane). There were threats to burn it in the streets, and when work on the screen version began, the filmmakers were unable to use Brick Lane itself because of local protests.

Copy picture

It was due to be this year’s Royal Film Performance, attended by Prince Charles, but at the last minute Clarence House cited scheduling difficulties leading to the cancellation (for only the second time in its history) of the performance. Instead, the film received its premiere at the London Film Festival.

So what exactly is this political hot potato? An anti-Islamist polemic? A searing social tract? A savage, Satanic Verses-style satire? No, it is (on screen at least) a sensitive and beautifully acted tale of a young girl transported from a close-knit rural family into a totally alien world and the ways in which she comes to terms with her circumstances and her own identity.

It opens with a lush, languid scene in a remote village in Bangladesh, a riot of green and earth tones, recalling the work of Satyajit Ray or early Merchant Ivory. Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a happy teenage girl devoted to her family and community, but when tragedy strikes, she is sent to London for an arranged marriage. The film then fast forwards several years to a cold, bleak street scene as Nazneen, now in her early thirties, walks back along Brick Lane to the flat that has become the centre of her existence.

The sense of displacement is overwhelming, encouraging the audience to share her sense of dislocation and entrapment, defined simply as a wife and mother. If the film really had been a controversy-seeking piece of polemic it would have been easy to go further down this road, depicting the Bangladeshi community around her as insular and patriarchal, but the film avoids such simplistic excess. Her husband Chanu (Satish Kaushik) is a generation older than Nazneen and does regard corn-trimming as part of a wife’s duties. But he is also kind and loving, devoted to his wife and their two teenage daughters, and determined to make a better life for them. The other wives in the neighbourhood are sympathetic and supportive, encouraging her to take on extra sewing work. This brings in some much-needed extra cash, but also introduces her to Karim (Christopher Simpson), a delivery man for his father’s clothes firm. Young, politically-aware and very handsome, he is everything her husband is not...

The fates of the three main characters, set against a backdrop of 9/11 and its aftermath, combine to create a touching love story; a serious, even-handed look at the response of a Muslim community to its demonization; and an exploration of cultural identity. Each of the major characters has a vision of Bangladesh that becomes more vague and idealised as they engage more with a wider community that still seems unfamiliar and is often actively hostile. Each makes a choice as to how they reconcile their twin identities and the film explores this in a sensitive, non-judgemental way.

It does make some criticisms of the community - Karim becomes increasingly involved with young Muslims who want to fight fire with fire when the racist attacks increase; and one of the older women is a money lender, despite the practice of charging interest on loans being forbidden by Islamic teaching. But only the kind of person who believes ethnic communities should be immune to any criticism whatsoever will find this film ‘offensive’.

Brick Lane does have its flaws – it struggles to condense a long and complex novel into an overly-short running time, and the climax is a little too manipulative – but it’s a serious and perceptive work that deserves to be widely seen. Leave your preconceptions at the door, try to ignore the ‘controversy’ and you’ll be richly rewarded.

Reviewed on: 23 Oct 2007
Share this with others on...
Brick Lane packshot
A Bangladeshi woman struggles to come to terms with a new life in Britain and her own identity.
Amazon link

Director: Sarah Gavron

Writer: Laura Jones, Abi Morgan, based on the novel by Monica Ali

Starring: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

Year: 2007

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


London 2007

Search database: