Rated PG-13, 102 min. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Starring Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson, Lalita Ahmed, Naeema Begum, Lana Rahman, Harvey Virdi.
For a movie that just barely passes the hour-and-a-half mark, Brick Lane packs in a whole lot of information. Adapted from Monica Ali’s acclaimed debut novel, Gavron’s film is a primer on race relations in late 20th century England, a remembrance of lost time and lost places, a crash course in Bangladeshi social customs, a look inside the mind of the unhappily married woman, a celebration of sexual independence, a condemnation of romantic indifference, an anthropological study of life in modern-day London council housing, and a commentary on Muslim life after the attacks of September 11. And if I told you there were also a couple of musical numbers thrown in, there’d be no reason to doubt me, would there? Well there aren’t, unfortunately, but only because the film’s heroine, Nazneen Ahmed (Chatterjee), only has a song in her heart when she’s locked inside her own head, dreaming of home. That home is a small village in Bangladesh, from which Nazneen was taken (in ceremonial clothing but with little ceremony) as a teenager to marry a man she’d never met before, a great, big, fatuous, unromantic, deluded bear of a man named Chanu (a larger-than-life Kaushik), who takes her to a small apartment in an enormous complex on Brick Lane in East London, an area known as Banglatown, to have a couple of kids, grow silent, and stare longingly out the windows she’s supposed to be cleaning. These extended reveries of home are the heart of Brick Lane, poetic idylls of Nazneen’s childhood spent running through high grass and low water with her beloved sister that are so rich with color and life as to be sensuous viewing experiences. Until she meets and falls for the charming, seductive (not to mention young and thin) Karim (Simpson), these memories are Nazneen’s only claim to identity, something far removed from the harsh, gray, alien realities of a Western existence spent sewing pants and cutting her husband’s corns. If this all sounds a bit too much like other stories you may have read or heard about, Oprah's-Book-Club-ready fairy tales about women from Old World cultures breaking the shackles of their emotionally stilted lives and finding joy in new romance and self-celebration, take heart in the fact that Brick Lane zigs when you most expect it to zag and that it never loses sight of its humanity in its quest to make its heroine more human. Nazneen’s nostalgic longing isn’t the salvation it may seem to be at first, and her husband, though on the surface a portrait of pompous self-regard, is not a man, or a character, to be underestimated. Taken for what it is, Brick Lane is something entirely its own.
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