Monica Ali’s elegant and critically trumpeted debut novel, “Brick Lane,” about the travails, conflicting emotions and quiet liberation of a Muslim woman in London, is a far lesser thing in its bigscreen transformation. Depth of character, such a distinctive quality of Ali’s book, is sacrificed for simpler strokes and shallower dimensions, with an undue emphasis placed by helmer Sarah Gavron and lenser Robbie Ryan on gorgeous pictures. Gentle exoticism and softened approach to post-9/11 issues will make things a slightly easier sell for Sony Pictures Classics, which will have to rely on tome’s fans to generate sufficient word of mouth.
Born to a poor rural Bangladeshi family, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) has a strong bond with her younger sister Hasina (Zafreen), but when their mother dies, Nazneen’s world soon changes. Married off to older, educated Chanu (Satish Kaushik), she’s sent to London’s East End to set up a properly Muslim home in a working-class apartment block off Brick Lane.
Abi Morgan and Laura Jones’ screenplay necessarily telescopes and compresses events in Ali’s novel, particularly in the book’s latter half, when Nazneen has long settled into a conventional domestic life with Chanu and her two growing, somewhat feisty daughters (Naeema Begum and Lana Rahman). This isn’t the grossly suffocating existence of a Muslim woman, as memorably depicted in Tevik Baser’s 1986 drama “40 Square Meters of Deutschland,” and, to be sure, Chanu doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of an oppressive Muslim patriarch.
But Nazneen’s life is penned and circumscribed, so even the possibility of setting up her own home-based sewing biz is a major leap that Chanu perceives as a threat to his household primacy — especially since he quit his job and foolishly anticipates that he can land a post suited to his self-inflated intellectual ambitions. Because Nazneen’s conflicts with Chanu are largely internalized due to her well-trained deference, the film tries, and fails, to find some means for her rebellion.
It mainly comes in the form of an affair with Karim (Christopher Simpson), who delivers pants to her door for various sewing jobs, but is basically the postman who always rings twice. Stakes grow higher with the Sept. 11 attack, which radicalizes Karim, who more than ever wants Nazneen to divorce Chanu and live with him.
A sign that “Brick Lane” never coheres dramatically is how Chanu emerges as the most unexpectedly interesting character; his pomposity and deafness to how silly he sounds to his wife and daughters hides an underlying wisdom that emerges later. Kaushik’s perf draws attention away from Chatterjee’s Nazneen, who comes off as eye-catching but relatively flat.
Ryan’s luscious cinematography may have been intended to be ironically beautiful, given the somewhat scruffy environs, but the images generally soften and even romanticize the kind of setting class-conscious Brit films are usually skilled at capturing with strong, realistic strokes. Voiceover of Nazneen’s many letters (by Chatterjee) to Hasina adds to pic’s precious sensibility.
The usually distinctive composer Jocelyn Pook (“Eyes Wide Shut”) inserts a few Indian touches into a surprisingly blah score.