A Toothless White Teeth

The Zadie Smith adaptation has no bite.

White Teeth, neither sparkling nor sharp

This is good, this is good, I don’t like it, this is good. If I remember right, those were my thoughts as I turned the pages of Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth a few years ago. I was impressed that Smith, at 24, had drilled directly into the raw-nerve subject of race hybridization and that she never became so mad about racism that she lost her ability to represent its nuances and even its humor. Her huge cast of characters, many of whom were middle-aged and stymied, neither cute nor villainous, showed her range. Above all, though, I was awed by Smith’s having so thoroughly snubbed the customs of first novels, as if she’d never heard of them. White Teeth contained no first-person narrator, no love story, no apotheosizing of adolescence.

But I didn’t like it. It was not absorbing. The characters kept flitting around, and I never got a chance to see the world their way. I never felt the relaxed, half-drowned sensation of helpless submission that a novel can produce. Still, the anti-psychological characters seemed to demand that I question just that fantasy of reader empathy. I was compelled to recognize the Bangladeshi, Jamaican, and English characters and conventions in the novel as exotic and impenetrable—and then be thrown back on myself once more to brood on why I was flinching so provincially, as one foolish English schoolteacher does in the novel, at the magical mysteries of the islands and the Far East—to say nothing of London itself.

Good, bright, inventive, but I didn’t like it. Too much homework. But I pushed through the book’s nearly 500 pages—and until now all I’ve ever said or even thought about White Teeth is, “It’s good!”

The movie White Teeth, based on the book, premieres on Sunday night on PBS and concludes next Sunday, May 18. It’s an ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre presentation (originally produced by Channel 4 in England), which means it comes with the unmistakable music, the sonorous introduction, and that word: “masterpiece.” Phil Davis, Om Puri, and Naomie Harris star in it, and they pull off difficult roles beautifully. The adaptation is so subtle I had a hard time sorting out which parts of the novel had been omitted.

For all this, however, White Teeth still comes off as indifferent monotone—no more affecting than a wry music video. The story of Clara (Naomie Harris), who in 1974 splits the home of her Jehovah’s Witness mother in favor of sex and drugs, is played entirely for irony. Then ill-defined, lackluster Archie (Phil Davis) undertakes to commit suicide, and you don’t care. A blind arranged marriage seems to promise excitement, but the bride and groom, on meeting, neither hate nor love each other. Then we repeat similarly affectless tales with another generation. Into these stories are dropped flashbacks, period music, surreal sequences. They add to the jumble. The action here is too often simply antics; it never breaks for pain or love.

The only convincing passion in the story seems to belong—and belong briefly—to Samad Iqbal (Om Puri), a Bangladeshi waiter, who, as he seeks his fortune in London, grows increasingly homesick. Though he’s married and has two children, he’s been having a tepid affair with the doltish schoolteacher, who dotes on his “Indianness.” Finally, he confides in a colleague.

“I have become corrupted by England,” he says.

“It’s just a normal midlife crisis.”

“What nonsense you babble!” he spits (Puri’s terrific here). “I should not have come to this country. It was the start of all my problems. Who can live in such a godless wasteland? Who can raise children in such a place? Condoms on pavements, harvest festivals, teacher temptresses, Mrs. Thatcher!”

This is the movie’s emotional highpoint. The question of what Samad will do about the wasteland—and what the fallout of that choice will be—barely gains a minute’s suspense before it’s comically settled.

White Teeth, which represents a nice risk for Masterpiece Theatre and perhaps the final canonization of Zadie Smith, is ultimately a smart, good-looking, and dull movie. It captures the spirit of the novel woefully well.