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Brick Lane

Flawed, But Promising Debut

Directed by Sarah Gavron, making her feature-length debut, and adapted by Laura Jones and Abi Morgan from the controversial novel by Monica Ali, Brick Lane explores the experiences of a Bangladeshi woman living in Londonís Brick Lane community before and after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Gavron crafts an often poignant, if borderline predictable and occasionally unfocused, character study that benefits from a warm, sympathetic turn by the lead actress, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and a willingness to ask questions about ethnic, religious, cultural, and gender identity in a post-9-11 world, even if she and, presumably, her collaborators, didnít have all (or even most of) the answers.

Although Nazneen (Chatterjee) has lived in Londonís East End for more than sixteen years, the entirety of her life consists of caring for her indifferent husband, the corpulent, self-absorbed Chanu (Satish Kaushik), and her two British-born, assimilated daughters, Shahana (Naeema Begum) and Bibi (Lana Rahman). She cooks, she cleans, she goes to market, and otherwise occupies herself with household chores in her East End apartment. Nazneen daydreams about her childhood in Bangladesh, an idyll that turned tragic when her mother committed suicide. Nazneenís father sent her to England to marry Chanu, while Nazneenís younger sister remained behind in Bangladesh. Despite promises from Chanu, Nazneen hasnít returned to Bangladesh to visit her sister. Outside of the letters they send each other sporadically, Nazneen and her sister donít speak to each other.

Chanu, however, is far from the stable breadwinner Nazneen expected when she agreed to the arranged marriage. Disappointed at being passed over for a promotion, Chanu impulsively resigns, unrealistically claiming heíll find another position within a week. When that doesnít work out, Chanu decides to take courses from an online university. Nazneen borrows an extra sewing machine from one of her neighbors, Razia (Harvey Virdi), and decides to take in piecework from a British born and raised Bangladeshi man, Karim (Christopher Simpson). The sheltered Nazneen finds herself instantly attracted to Karim, but a romantic relationship with Karim is complicated both by her marriage and Karimís increasing radicalization in response to post-9-11 anti-Muslim sentiment in England and elsewhere in the West.

With its focus on a passive central character and her interior life, Brick Lane betrays its origin as a novel. Gavron steps around Nazneenís passivity by giving her an active emotional life, primarily through Nazneenís memories, even as her exterior life is severely constrained by the rules and conventions of Bangladeshi-Muslim culture. The micro-focus on Nazneenís cloistered life heighten the episodic feel of many of the scenes, scenes driven by chance occurrences, daily routine, and the major pivot point, the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

At this point, Brick Lane shifts subtly from the central issue of self-determination and cultural constraints to the larger issue of identity shaped by often exaggerated ethnic and religious differences. If Gavron offers any answers, itís through finely observed gestures and a positive expression of a spirituality that transcends political differences.

Whether thatíll satisfy moviegoers, however, is another question. Although Brick Lane unfolds slowly (and sometimes fitfully), it's carried forward by the Chatterjeeís subtly expressive performance as Nazneen, a woman who doesnít want so much to overcome as to endure, until, of course forbidden desire (and maybe love) appear in her life. Thankfully, Gavron avoided the clichťs usually associated with that scenario, offering Nazneen and her audience a more refreshing, more authentic resolution to Nazneenís personal dilemma. Surprisingly, the buffoonish Chanu emerges as a sympathetic, even tragic figure, a dreamer and schemer refusing to acknowledge a lifetime of failures, not because of pride, but because heís desperate to be loved and respected by his family.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars