Far less complex than its source material, the 2003 novel by Monica Ali, Brick Lane is all grace notes and no chords. Still, if it doesn't do justice to an exquisite book, it at least serves as a worthy companion. Held up against such similar immigrant culture-shock tales as the recent adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, Brick Lane appears thoughtful, even resonant. And the cinematography (by Robbie Ryan) is gorgeous.
Married off at a tender age, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is shipped from her home in Bangladesh into the fleshy embrace of her London bureaucrat husband, Chanu (a glorious performance by Satish Kaushik), and the intimidating bustle of the neighborhood around Brick Lane in the East End. Chanu, who's an avid but not particularly clever reader of English literature, fancies himself overeducated for his line of work. When he's passed over for a promotion, he promptly quits. Alarmed, Nazneen takes up piecework to keep the family afloat, but Chanu is suspicious of women working, even inside the home. And it turns out he has cause: The boy who brings Nazneen her cloth is turned on by her cloistered existence, and soon they're engaged in a passionate affair, half sex and half post-9/11 political-religious awakening.
Critics have complained that the pretty cinematography detracts from Nazneen's story—that it puts an artificial gloss on a drab, working-class milieu, that its Bangladesh flashbacks are all color and no content. But Brick Lane's tone is unusually intimate; every frame is filtered through Nazneen's perspective. Seen from this angle, the Bangladesh footage has the unnerving jewel tones of nostalgia and false memory, and indeed, Nazneen will soon be disillusioned by her sister's misleading account of her life there. And when the film finds beauty in a working-class flat, it's a sincere attempt at representing the way a modest domestic existence can be willed into and out of enchantment. The look of Brick Lane is like its comedy: broad, but never inhuman.