Don't go to see Brick Lane expecting to learn anything about Brick Lane. Even if you've read Monica Ali's engaging novel and wandered around its east London setting, you still can't be certain, until a scene in nearby Liverpool Street station at the end of the picture, that this adaptation hasn't relocated the story to one of the UK's other Brick Lanes, in Llwydcoed or Old Leake. Small wonder this is such a timid film, when it can't even display allegiance to its own title.
That vagueness has nothing to do with the protests by the Brick Lane Association that diverted filming away from the street itself (there are always studio sets, or other streets) and everything to do with a general failure of nerve on the part of the production. Take the portrayal of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who as a girl in a Bangladeshi village is married off to the older Chanu (Satish Kaushik), and despatched to an East End estate. In the novel, she daydreams about "ice e-skating", likening it to the way her mind skates off of its own accord. And Ali pursues that idea to the last page, when Nazneen launches herself on to an ice rink; it's a lush, romantic image tailor-made for cinema. But the makers of Brick Lane know better. Out goes the ice-skating metaphor, and instead we see Nazneen flat on her back, making a snow angel - lying down at the very moment in the story when she finally stands up for herself.
It wasn't wrong to jettison the first third of the novel, which focuses on Nazneen coming to England. But the director, Sarah Gavron, never gets a handle on the remaining material. It's hard to see why Nazneen is missing her village when Gavron applies the same vivid colour scheme to both the Bangladesh flashbacks and the present-tense London scenes. What is there to pine for when one location looks as inviting as the other? And she instructs Chatterjee, her lead actress, to register childlike wonder whenever she leaves her flat, apparently forgetting that Nazneen has been in London for 16 years. It makes no sense for her to tour familiar streets in a state of dazed surprise, unless she has a bad case of jamais vu, or an addiction to powerful painkillers.
The core of the film, like the book, is Nazneen's relationship with Karim (Christopher Simpson), who employs her as a seamstress. Simpson and Chatterjee generate a rapport, although it's mildly exasperating that their so-called affair is treated with such coyness. Given the available evidence, Nazneen and Karim aren't guilty of much more than a few come-hither looks and some inadvertent frottage.
In every respect, Brick Lane is a shadow of its source material. I was sure the film would show some guts once it turned to the post-9/11 hostility toward Muslims. But all that happened was that everyone started talking as though they knew they were characters in a film about multicultural Britain. When Chanu announced: "Things are getting bad out there," I had to stop myself from replying: "Out there? You should see the view from where I'm sitting."
The documentary Jesus Camp, which opens on 23 November, is the perfect remedy for the distant tone of Brick Lane. I defy anyone except its subjects - creepy, emotionally abusive zealots from the religious right, and the children who fall under their spell - to watch it without feeling livid and distressed. The most disturbing footage comes from the "Kids on Fire" summer camp, where youngsters are indoctrinated by the minions of George Bush, who are bent on removing divisions between church and state. A cardboard cut-out of the president is wheeled out, and proves more charismatic than the real thing. (It can probably pronounce "Abu Ghraib" correctly, too.) There isn't a scene here that doesn't induce shudders, from 12-year-old Levi confessing that non-Christians make him feel "yucky", to Rachael, a lonely nine-year-old who dreams of running a nail-bar where she can preach her anti-abortion message to a captive audience.
Pick of the week
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (15)/ The Wayward Cloud (nc)
dir: Tsai Ming-liang
Two sensuous new dramas from the acclaimed Taiwanese director.
Into the Wild (15)
dir: Sean Penn
Christopher McCandless, prophet or egotist? Discuss.
dir: Gavin Hood
Despite some compromises, a decent thriller about “extraordinary rendition”.