Brick Lane is not about 9/11. Nor is it about feminist awakening, or nationalism or love. Or maybe it's about all of these things. While it certainly touches on these ideas, it is too complex a film to be summed up with a single platitude.
Based on a critically acclaimed novel by Bangladeshi native and London resident Monica Ali, Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a provincial teenage girl forced into an arranged marriage with the enterprising Chanu (Satish Kaushik), who moves her to a dingy East End flat in London. Sixteen years later, Nazneen is still afraid to leave her neighborhood and spends her time keeping house for her husband and two daughters. Instructed in her youth that a woman's place is to endure what she's been given, Nazneen's joyless life is only brightened by her hopes of returning to Bangladesh and seeing her sister.
When she meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), a young and passionate Muslim activist, Nazneen begins to recognize her own desires and needs, and meek marital complacency becomes impossible. After the events of Sept. 11 cause waves of racial backlash that threaten the houses on Nazneen's block, her entire neighborhood must decide where home really is.
While the film initially moves with the same lethargy that Nazneen employs each day, her slow transformation from timid housewife to an aware and emancipated individual creates a compelling story. Chatterjee's performance is a study in reserve, her emotions communicated through quiet looks and measured delivery. Forbidden to work by her prideful husband, her initial rebellion comes in the modest form of becoming a home seamstress.
A man of large aspirations and an even larger girth, Chanu is introduced as a buffoonish character, so self-deceived that he believes he can educate himself well enough to teach at a university. His understanding of Western opportunity is overly optimistic and at war with his Eastern ideas of female compliance. The film centers on Nazneen, but Kaushik's realization of Chanu as he relinquishes his naive notions makes for a more believable and satisfying character arc. The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable, with a particularly fine performance by young Naeema Begum as the eldest daughter. Her role as the discontented and outspoken child could easily have become overwrought and tiresome, but Begum admirably reigns in the melodrama.
The film is gorgeous to watch, and cinematographer Robbie Ryan remarkably captures the beauty of two very different worlds: an impoverished Asian village and a bleak London housing project. An empty factory workroom gleams with as much gossamer light as any Bollywood spectacle. Handsomely orchestrated by Jocelyn Pook, the only complaint with the craft of the film is that the actors' accents, both English and Bangladeshi, are so strong as to occasionally render the dialogue unintelligible.
Too often, a film relies on extraordinary circumstances or flashy effects to sell its story. Director Sarah Gavron seems to instinctively understand the pacing and direction needed to propel a story that doesn't require either of these. The languid tempo of the film helps facilitate an automatic sympathy for Nazneen's situation, and the story itself has enough diverse themes to make it almost universally relatable.
Gavron's audacity as a filmmaker is seen at the turning point in the film, where we watch the actual footage of the second plane colliding with the World Trade Center. This image still has the power to shock far more than any computer generated scenario, and the dismay it incites colors the rest of the film.
What's remarkable and exciting about Brick Lane is that it is the early work of many of those involved. It's a fine film, solidly structured and confidently executed, and it wouldn't be surprising to have seen more credits listed by each contributor's name. The novel was Ali's first, and both Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan only have one or two other films each to their name. Even Chatterjee is a relative newcomer to the acting profession. With the talent obvious on the screen, there's promise of more great work from these folks. More than the sum of its parts, Brick Lane is a fascinating study of race relations, independence and loyalty in a present-day culture in which your country may not be your home.