Zadie Smith has always liked keeping her secrets. She keeps them almost as well as the characters in her novels do, so when it was announced her newest novel would be on bookshelves in September, I secretly found myself mindlessly reading pages from White Teeth before bed. Then, earlier this year, my girlfriend and I were idling through netflix when we discovered a BBC production of White Teeth from 2002. I’d heard about the film before, just by the title, but somehow the association between the two of them never never caught my attention (I’m embarrassed to say). One thing I’ll say about the film, while watching it on a broiling summer night, I was inspired to abandon the heavy novel stuffed in my backpack and rediscover Smith and her dramedic wit.
The opening scene to the film adaptation starts by imitating the exact same opening scene from the book. A solemn looking Englishman with thin blond hair and staple overcrowded mouth slumps in a tiny Renault down a dark deserted alleyway with a long rubber hose trailing from his exhaust pipe into the window of the passenger seat. He fumbles with the ignition, takes a deep breath, and starts the car; leaning back in his seat and watching the windshield fog with dreaming curiosity. Smith’s opening scene, which depicts one of the novel’s main protagonists, Archie Jones (Philip Davis) , in the midst of suicide, firmly grabs your attention. It was a relief to find, even with prior knowledge, that the film’s interpretation of the opening scene caught me in the exact same way the opening paragraph did.
Much of what pulls the audience in is the responsive and eccentric cast which grows more interesting as the film progresses. Smith’s characters in “White Teeth” all hold competing personal philosophies which ultimately end up victimizing them. These philosophies are often exposed by introducing a foreign entity into a familial environment who, over the course of their interaction, reveals the prejudices, deceits, and admirations of working-class living in the cultural ironworks of Northwest London. The film’s cinematography expressively captures the immigrant tenement’s with sobering precision. But even through the the world of brick, a solid vision is captured.
I recommend seeing “White Teeth” to anyone who has already read the book. The film’s long enough give justice to all the major plot points without sacrificing the pacing. It also cleverly gives Americans an entirely different cultural perspective of England. Media depictions of the U.K. still haven’t seemed to evolve past the 19th century. The era of Kitchen Sink dramas, such as, Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, certainly showed that many British had to wake up and get their hands dirty to scrape a living. White Teeth certainly is a continuance of this methodology in a post-modern sense. The topic tackles with assimilation rather than dukes and earl’s. And while Smith’s story is indeed a comedy of manners, she supplants top hats and corsets with grit.