Just as I was thinking, It is almost too easy to fetishize the sari, with its deep, rich or bright colors, gold embroidery, and simultaneously revealing and concealing drapery in a Western setting, a tourist steps into the frame on Brick Lane and snaps a photo of Nazneen, the protagonist, hurrying down the London street and looking very small and very soft against the gray cobblestones. It’s a lovely image that we and the tourist see, one of many in a faithful and thoughtful adaptation of Monica Ali’s well-regarded novel. In the film Brick Lane the sari stands in for the eternal feminine, for passion, for rebellion, deployed as clothing, as curtains, and as contrast, for Nazneen takes in sewing, stitching away at the more obviously seductive tight jeans and spangled tops that her British-born daughter desires. When Nazneen succumbs to her own desires for the first time, the sex montage is intercut with profile-against-backlit-fabric, lying on fabric, unwrapping of the sari fabric.
I love looking at all that fabric, as I did when I went to India, where in cities it does often feel as if women are the country’s one beauty, textiles in every color replacing rows of flowers or trees as urban accoutrements. But it seems to me that a director, Sarah Gavron here, Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire, ought to have a more original thought, or to take the textile fetish one step further. In Brick Lane it is the fabric that does most of the talking, for while the novel is very interior, the film is not. Verbal exchanges often rest uneasily in the framework of silence, of the not-said, that the movie effectively dramatizes. We don’t really understand Nazneen’s lover Karim’s turn to the political, or how that connects to her life and their relationship. We don’t really understand why she doesn’t fulfil the marriage plot and run off with him. Well, actually we do, because that is a fantasy for other people. But when Nazneen says that (about fantasy) to Karim, we feel that a psychoanalyzed middle-class voice has been transplanted into her immigrant working-class mouth. I remember liking the novel, but feeling the same confusion about why Nazneen made the choice she does. Both book and film make it very clear that making an independent choice is a break for her, culturally and psychologically, but the explanation seems to be beyond either Gavron or Ali’s power to show.