Like many other acclaimed books of recent years - 'White Teeth', 'Vernon God Little', 'Notes on a Scandal' - Monica Ali's debut 'Brick Lane' is a novel whose title now resonates even with those who haven't turned its pages. Like any literary adaptation, the challenge facing director Sarah Gavron was two-fold: to please those who have read the book and to inspire those who haven't to do so. What she's managed to do is make a film that is somewhat disappointing but still worth watching.
Following the suicide of her mother, Bangladeshi Nazneen (Chatterjee) is sent to 1980s London for an arranged marriage to Chanu Ahmed (Kaushik). Years her senior, Nazneen settles into a life of drudgery in Chanu's home, with the couple having two daughters and losing a baby son. After 15 years she's still only in her early thirties but there's little to help her tell one day from the next.
But when Chanu loses his job, and embarks on one wild goose chase after another, Nazneen needs to do something to make ends meet. She gets a job sewing jeans at home and through it meets Karim (Dublin born actor Simpson), an attractive young man who makes her wake up to the world around her and the possibility of happiness.
Watching Gavron's film it occurs to you that the BBC should've got the rights to Ali's book and made a 'Our Friends in the North'-style serial because 'Brick Lane' would've been better experienced over a number of nights than just one. Such an approach would've allowed the very interesting characters to be developed further, and teased out the issues raised.
Some sections of the Bangladeshi community in London have been very unhappy about their depiction in the book and onscreen (filming was even moved away from the original Tower Hamlets setting) and Gavron's depiction of the tensions between generations is at times difficult to watch. To an outsider, however, all the scenes felt realistic.
The greatest problem with this film is the pacing. It is at times very slow and it's only when the story gains some momentum that you forget about your watch. This was rectifiable if there had been more scenes to develop the characters. The performances are excellent but it's only in the latter stages of the story that you feel you've bonded with the characters.
Chatterjee mixes unappreciated beauty and a life of things left unspoken but her great performance is so still and internalised that it takes getting used to. Her onscreen husband Kaushik is also excellent but the shift from contempt to sympathy for his character happens too abruptly, although the film is worth seeing for his scene-stealing speech at a community meeting alone. As for Simpson, he smoulders onscreen but also needed more to work with.
If you plan to watch 'Brick Lane', perhaps it's best to go with someone who has read the book. However you feel afterwards, Gavron has achieved one very notable thing: her film will make you want to read or re-read it.