Dir. Sarah Gavron; writ. Laura Jones, Abi Morgan, based on a novel by Monica Ali; Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson (PG-13)
Even before its appearance in print in 2003, the unpublished manuscript of Brick Lane earned author Monica Ali a spot on Granta’s list of best young British novelists. It also earned the animosity of Asian activists who complained that Ali’s debut novel besmirched Britain’s South Asian immigrants. Protesters assembled at Brick Lane to block location-shooting of the film. The location, in London’s East End, is where more Bangladeshis are said to make their homes than anywhere else outside Bangladesh.
Home is the utopia (i.e., no place) for which the characters in Sarah Gavron’s film yearn. After 16 years in a cheap, drab English flat, Nazneen (Chatterjee), fortified by idealized memories of lush childhood landscapes, still longs for home. She was 17 when, following her mother’s death, she was dispatched to an arranged marriage with an overbearing, overweight, and overage immigrant named Chanu Ahmed (Kaushik). Still playing the dutiful Muslim wife, Nazneen is herself now the mother of two daughters for whom London is all the home they know. Proud of being more English than the English, Chanu, who is fond of quoting Chaucer, Hume, and Thackeray, humors his beautiful wife’s wish to return to Bangladesh. However, though convinced of his own exceptional talent, Chanu can never hold a job long enough to afford plane fare back to Asia.
Letters from Nazneen’s sister in Bangladesh sustain but then demolish her faith in home, a world beyond Brick Lane. Nazneen’s personal development from submission to assertion is predictable but rendered vividly. “What cannot be changed must be borne,” advised her mother, whose resignation shaded into suicidal despair. Brick Lane is the story of a village woman’s lesson in self-determination. “If Allah wanted us to ask questions,” declared her mother, “he would have made us men.” But a hand-me-down sewing machine teaches Nazneen her own economic power, and she discovers her own sensuality through covert romance with a Muslim stud named Karim (Simpson). Set against a background of terrorism and Islamophobia, Brick Lane challenges Allah by posing pointed questions about home, love, and fate.