All credit to director Sarah Gavron and company for taking on the task of adapting “Brick Lane”, Monica Ali’s finely realized novel to the big screen. They’ve made bold cuts, condensing the story, but not the emotions, and distilling from it the essence of a woman’s journey from darkness to light.
The darkness is the overwhelming self-abnegation that Bangladeshi society demands of its women. Specifically the demands on Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a village girl brought to the eponymous gritty, working-class area of London by Chanu (Satish Kaushik) her husband, an older man with a weakness for English literature and the British Civil Service to whom she was married off at a tender age and without having had a say in the matter. Years of living in London have isolated Nazneen in more ways than one. Her husband, a man with his own difficulties in being a Bangladeshi in England, treats her with the sort of off-handed affection usually reserved for a pet, talking at her, not to her and certainly not having conversations of any substance. Her teenaged daughters, Londoners to the core, barely notice her. The hubbub generated by her family in the morning as they prepare to leave for work or school is suddenly replaced by the thundering silence of an empty house whose inhabitants have lives that don’t include her. She makes up for it with a deep nurturing faith that refreshes her with the light she asks Allah for, and with the endless stream of letters from her little sister left behind in Bangladesh, whose adventures in romance provide Nazneen an emotional connection. The letters she writes back sustain her by giving her an outlet for her own thoughts and dreams, even as her memories of village life sustain her through the gray London winters and grayer ex-pat life that includes dirty looks from Anglo neighbors and racist gangs roaming the area. Visually, Gavron creates a brilliantly poignant juxtaposition between the present, with Nazneen being a fixture rather than a person, even during a dreary and mechanical bout of coitus with her husband, and the luminous memories of her childhood and the joyous, laughing closeness she enjoyed with her sister in tropical lushness.
The light is what happens when Nazneen accidentally drops oranges down a flight of stairs in her building. The tumble is collected by her new neighbor, Razia (Harvey Virdi), a fellow Bangladeshi woman, but one who has left tradition behind, cutting her hair, smoking cigarettes, and making no excuses for making her own way in the world. That way is through piece work done at home for a local clothing factory, and thanks to Razia’s gift of an old sewing machine and an introduction to Karim (Christopher Simpson), the handsome, British-born Bangladeshi young man who does the deliveries and pick-ups, Nazneem’s worries about money are assuaged, and her dreams of returning home become a real possibility. That dream takes a turn, though, as Nazneem overcomes her shyness around Karim, and he invites her to join the local Bangladeshi political movement. The shock of having her opinion considered opens her up for more possibilities, including not denying her attraction for Karim. The world at large also intrudes, as 9/11 brings about political changes and cultural awareness in her own neighborhood that disrupts everyone’s lives.
Gavron takes her cue from the book in keeping this a story about Nazneem’s world view. Her inner life is the driving force, and it is made manifest with a poetic sensuality that encompasses more than the sexual. When Karim leaves after his first visit, having paid the sort of attention to Nazneen that speaks to her worth as an individual, not a cog in the family unit, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror by the door. The look on her face as though she is seeing herself for the first time as person in her own right is marvelous to behold. Chatterjee, in the way she touches her cheek, conveys the world-changing moment that is welcome shock of a self-awareness being born. Hers is a face that finds a profound eloquence in silence, transmitting an insistent intensity to the emotions revealed. Chatterjee also imbues Nazneen with a grave and dignity rather than a sense of being downtrodden, making Nazneen’s submission not weakness, but rather the cultural conditioning to which she has been subjected. It’s for this reason that when she chooses to take in sewing without consulting her husband, and later chooses to explore her awakening sexuality with the man who brings her the piecework, while still being devoted to her family, there is no inherent contradiction in the character, only the cultural imperatives at work. It’s also why Chanu is not a villain, but as much a victim of culture as his wife. As played with a bedrock of sweetness by Kaushik he is, rather, an exemplary husband whose dream of being able to be both British and Bengali is a tragedy that only he could not see coming.
Gesture more than words to bring Nazneen’s inner life forward, the way she cuts a lime for Karim’s glass of water. The way she brushes her hand over the watery shimmer of the green sequins on a piece she is sewing. The way she crumples a letter to her sister with a swift and decisive motion that is otherwise lacking in the way she moves. If her final emotional resolution doesn’t have the impact, or verisimilitude it should, it is the film’s only failing.
BRICK LANE is the bittersweet story of one woman finding her identity by creating it from scratch, and as that it is a powerful statement. But more, as a metaphor for those, male and female, without voice, living under the oppression of outside influences and finding their way to personal empowerment, it challenges the audience to rethink both what identity means, and what it costs to be true to it.