Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen in Brick Lane

Seems a long time since I last posted. October/November are the busiest time of the year for me and I’ve taught lots of films, some several times over in the last few weeks. Perhaps between now and the New Year I’ll get to see more for pleasure.

And so to Brick Lane with no prior thoughts, having not read the book but aware of the controversy. I enjoyed the film, but I can recognise that there are problems. The most obvious comparison for me is with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1997), one of my favourite films of the 1990s. It isn’t that the narratives are necessarily similar, but something about the general theme of generations and coming to terms with living in another country – as well as a rather gentle and muted mise en scène disrupted by occasional bursts of colour and excitement. With Udayan Prasad directing Hanif Kureshi’s script, I think Fanatic wins out, but Brick Lane, directed by Sarah Gavron, has much going for it.

I was impressed with the even-handedness of Brick Lane. The husband is not an ogre, but a well-meaning and thoughtful man with genuine feelings. The family feels like a recognisable family and the mother/central character should break the hardest heart. I’ve seen several reviews that make comparisons to Satyajit Ray, which seems a little strong, if well-meaning. In some ways the flashbacks to Bengal were the problem for me. I can see why they are there and separately, the scenes in Bengal and Whitechapel worked. But cut them together and I wasn’t sure. I gather from some reviews that this is an issue in adapting the book and perhaps that is why Fanatic with its original script seems more coherent. What does work very well in Brick Lane for me is the music and I’m rediscovering the beautiful voice of Natacha Atlas all over again.

Generally, I love ‘Scope films and the opening scenes of Brick Lane – in Bengal – work very well visually, but I’m less sure about the aesthetic decision when the film moves to London. There is nothing wrong with a London drama in ‘Scope (Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is one of my favourite films) but it does suggest a ‘big’ film, either in scale or in melodrama excess. Brick Lane is perhaps a ‘small film’. But, despite my cavils, one which is well worth watching.