Director Sarah Gavron is thoroughly polite in her adaptation of Monica Ali’s much-loved novel. So polite that this graceful tale of lives lived day-by-day, millimetre-by-millimetre, comes off as oddly flat-footed and modest in its lack of drama. In Bangladesh in the ’80s, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a thoughtful teenager dispatched to an east London estate to marry a frog-faced man twice her age. Skip to 2001, and Nazneen is a mother of two whose narrow world expands a little when she takes a job stitching-up clothes for the rag trade. Soon, she’s having an affair with a younger man, Karim (Christopher Simpson).
Gavron cleverly outlines the closed-in boundaries of Nazneen’s Brick Lane. She only leaves the house to shop, she tells Karim. When her teenage daughter, Shahana (Naeema Begum), storms out one evening, she chases after her, past the beered-up lads and curry houses, across to Liverpool Street. The steel and glass of the City is just a five-minute walk away from home but might as well be Gotham. The crunch comes after the attacks on the World Trade Center, amid the drum-beat for war and the backlash against Britain’s Muslims. The film is oddly timid on this point. We hear of girls having their hijabs yanked off in the street and British Bengalis being abused but we see nothing more than a rallying cry at a community meeting. Meanwhile, Nazneen’s turbulent domestic troubles come to pass with very little trouble indeed. But despite the film’s lack of energy, the warmth of Ali's characters remains: Chatterjee is watchful and expressive as Nazneen while Satish Kaushik steals the show as her husband, with his self-important fondness for quoting from the greats of philosophy and literature. Watching his Del Boy conviction that this time next year we’ll all be millionaires (or in his case promoted by his boss at the council) is awful but awfully funny. Still, you can’t help thinking the sprawl and subtleties of Ali’s novel would be better served by television.