Residents of the actual Brick Lane, a London thoroughfare inhabited mostly by Bangladeshi immigrants, turned out in droves to protest this filmed adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel, complaining that her book portrayed them as insufficiently devout Muslims. Once they finally see the movie, expect them to hit the streets again, this time livid that they come off as so damn boring.
A rote, passionless culture-clash saga with a touch of Madame Bovary, Brick Lane follows the travails of Nazneen Ahmed (Chatterjee), a 30-ish Bangladeshi woman who was married off to a fat businessman (Kaushik) and shipped to England when she was 17. Nearly two decades later, she still misses the lush greenery of her homeland and the giggly company of her sister, with whom she corresponds regularly. (Cue expository voiceover.) Taking up a part-time, work-at-home job as a seamstress to alleviate her ennui, she falls into a desultory affair with assimilated bohunk Karim (Simpson), who encourages her to leave her husband just as hubby quits his job and decides to move back to Bangladesh.
Not having read Ali’s novel, I can’t say whether Nazneen’s internal monologue transcends cliché on the page. As portrayed by Chatterjee, however, she’s little more than a morose lump, casting her eyes about warily at every single banal remark her husband makes. (She’s meant to blossom when she and Karim get busy, but it’s like watching a paper flower expand in half an inch of water.) Screenwriter Laura Jones, who’s previously rendered soporific the work of Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady) and Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), spells everything out in laughably broad strokes; her notion of a “character moment” is to have the patriarch pause while packing—before a half-empty box, no less—to ask aloud whether he should take along Thackeray or Proust. (“I will take both,” he decides.) Director Gavron employs the same ponderous touch, doling out idyllic flashbacks like complimentary breath mints and never missing an opportunity for a Significant Close-Up. It’s nice to see English-language movies acknowledge the vibrant immigrant communities that make up every major city, but can we please give them something halfway interesting to say or do?