One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for good writing is to start the story as close to the end as possible. In “Brick Lane,” a movie about a Bangladeshi woman’s immigrant experience in England, the screenwriter (according to the director’s commentary) dumped about 250 pages of Monica Ali’s novel, thus rapidly moving the action from the main character’s childhood to 16 years into her arranged marriage — over the opening credits, no less. So why does it still feel overlong at 102 minutes?
“Brick Lane” isn’t so much boring as it is simplistic. It’s almost as if the screenwriter and director collaborated to keep the characters out of harm’s way. Alas, with no pain comes no empathy from the audience, and with no empathy the film amounts to an hour-and-a-half-long pity party — a beautifully shot, well-acted pity party. There’s nothing at stake, not much happens and we’re asked to connect with Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a mother of two who cheats on her husband, because he’s overweight and boring.
This is a character study, and as such acting trumps plot. Nazneen picks up a side job sewing at home to compensate for her husband’s underemployment and subsequently falls into an illicit love affair. Chatterjee is a compelling actress, effectively conveying years of longing and forced submissiveness in long, mooning glances. When her heart starts fluttering because Karim (Christopher Simpson), her hot young material delivery guy (who could pass for Antonio Banderas’ kid brother), looks at her lustfully, you really feel it. And the fear that rises in Nazneen every time her boorish husband Chanu (Satish Kaushik) gets angry is palpable. However, the fact that he does nothing with his anger except throw a banana in one scene destroys all tension.
Chanu and Nazneen live on Brick Lane, a real-life community of native Bangladeshis in London. The film is set in months leading up to and immediately following 9/11 for no discernible reason except to show an increase of anger toward Muslims, which already existed. Not that you, the viewer, get to see much of that anger. The “backlash” against the Asian community is limited to a little ding-dong-ditch and a confiscated box of anti-Muslim fliers. Whites are reduced to faceless bigots, shouting their off-screen racial epithets but representing about as much danger as a Saturday afternoon air raid test siren. Karim soon joins an underground Muslim uprising group (OK, now we’re going somewhere) whose purpose seems to be holding meetings where they do things like vote on a cool name for themselves, give a general cry of semi-alarm, and — yawn — burn a wooden effigy of George W. Bush.
Gorgeous cinematography abounds, however, particularly in the (repetitive) flashbacks. The music is haunting, creating a genuine feeling of nostalgia. And the claustrophobic, cluttered apartment sets gives you a glimpse into Nazneen’s desire for her lush, green homeland, even if her decision at the end is simultaneously baffling and deflating.
by Sarah Gavron Rated PG-13, 102 minutes Film screening by East Lansing
Film Society Jan. 14-18 7:30 p.m. Wednesday Hannah Community Center,
819 Abbot Road, East Lansing 7 p.m. & 9:15 p.m. Friday, Saturday
& Sunday Wells Halls, MSU $7, $5 seniors, $3 students www.elff.com