The task of literary adaptation always becomes what to expand, what to distill and what to slough off altogether. Whether the translation from page to screen is successful is measured by how smartly those choices were made. In Sarah Gavron’s first feature, Monica Ali’s rich, assured 2003 debut novel about the Bangladeshi Muslim diaspora in London is adequately served, but the decisions of cowriters Abi Morgan and Laura Jones too often turn Ali’s complex prose into the predictable.
Opening with a brief scene of our heroine, Nazneen, as a young girl in Bangladesh witnessing a traumatic incident and being sent off for her arranged marriage, the film confines its action to 2001 in East End’s Tower Hamlets, where Nazneen (played as an adult by the dreamy Chatterjee) lives with her kind but overbearing husband, Chanu (Kaushik), and their two daughters. The pivotal points that occur in the book between 1985, the year of Nazneen’s arrival in the U.K. as an 18-year-old bride, and 2001 are alluded to in the script, producing melodramatic gazes and silences. When Nazneen begins an affair with Karim (Simpson), a Muslim activist in his twenties who brings jeans to our heroine to alter, the film finds a graceful center. But the essential questions this romance stirs up in her—how much control she has over her life, what constitutes home—become diluted onscreen. Too many flashbacks and manufactured confrontations make you wonder whether Ali’s book would have made for a better TV miniseries, a format that worked well for Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
Cast and crew