If Hollywood tends to portray women as childlike creatures more often than not benefiting from domestication, domineering authority figures and being consigned to the kitchen and delivery room, that distorted perspective is doubled when it comes to other cultures. The family drama Brick Lane is a case in point, a gracefully filmed but exasperating mood piece about a young Indian Muslim woman’s adjustment to an unhappy arranged marriage in the UK.
Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is sent off to London from her rural Bangladesh village as a teenager, forced into a marriage with a man she’s never met, but who has described himself as financially comfortable and an excellent and willing provider. However Chanu (Satish Kaushik) turns out to be a much older, obese, comical and sexually self-centered man chronically unemployed with no prospects, and who inhabits a cramped, dingy flat. And Nazneen, a young woman of uncommon beauty, resigns herself to her fate in silence, and bears Chanu two daughters who have turned into assimilation-obsessed, unruly pubescent girls.
To make ends meet in the face of the family’s dire situation, Nazneen decides to do sewing at home for a local merchant, despite Chanu’s tantrums in response to her perceived disobedience and gestures towards independence. With little joy in her life or contact with the outside world and inconsolable homesickness, especially for her sister with whom she shared an intense emotional bond, it’s little wonder that Nazneen is drawn against her better judgment into an affair with the young handsome Muslim Kari (Christopher Sampson), who delivers the bundles of garments for sewing to her home.
Based on the bestselling novel by Monica Ali, Brick Lane sadly reinforces all the current oppressive platitudes about women in movies, touching on mandatory motherhood and adherence to family values even in the most deplorable of situations. The film also seems to recommend that the best recourse for women with problematic lives, is to return to some imagined childhood ideal of infantile serenity rather than embark on any difficult, independent-minded challenge in the world, for which they are presumably ill-prepared or simple incapable as females.
As such, Nazneen makes her peace with marriage to a pathetic partner, which doesn’t afford her the least satisfaction beyond the comfort of predictability, and rejects Kari, a fiery Muslim idealist with whom she is deeply in love. Nazneen instead settles for the emotional compensation never attained with her spouse, of a dumbed down, odd girlfriend type of relationship with her daughters, which we are expected to believe will provide all the exhilaration and fulfillment in life that she may ever require again. Or, as her husband advises in a rare lucid moment when he’s not utterly daffy, when you’re young one longs for possibility, but when older, it is certainty that brings satisfaction. Brick Lane, a movie whose visuals are lovely to behold and lyrically awash in sensuality and longing, but sets the lives of women back at least a few centuries.
Sony Pictures Classics