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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008

Woman Out of Place (Brick Lane)

Hitting the brick wall

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In a little village in Bangladesh a wedding has been prepared for a couple that has never met. Nazneen's father has arranged her marriage to an older Bengali man living in London. Dressed in bridal finery, Nazneen is placed at the stern of a boat casting off from her birthplace. She looks out from under her veil with forlorn eyes at her unsmiling family watching her recede into the distance. It's a sad parting and the beginning of an uncertain future.

Most of Nazneen's story, told in the sterling British production Brick Lane, takes place in a dreary London neighborhood crowded with Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. Murmurs of English xenophobia against Muslims are heard and most everyone has experienced bigotry, especially after 9/11. Prejudice, however, is in the backdrop of the film Sarah Gavron directed from the novel by Monica Ali. Brick Lane is primarily about a woman beset by many challenges and heartbreaks. Its characters are keenly observed and written with deep insight into the tangled thoughts and emotions of men, women and their children.

The portly man Nazneen married could be mistaken at first for a porcine fool. Although learned, he is more pedantic than intellectual; his thick neck sweating profusely under his white collar, he strives and fails to make the grade in a society that will always view him as buffoonish. When Nazneen takes up sewing at home for a garment factory to supplement his uncertain wages, his reaction is injured pride. And yet the husband is not an unkind caricature but a man out of place and out of time. A secular Bengal nationalist who carries Islam in his heart, he is as out of step with the youthful militants ascendant in his neighborhood as he is with the larger British society.

When her husband piles on top of her to make love, Nazneen's eyes turn away, inward, to memories of home, especially her beloved younger sister. She begins to fall in love with one of the neighborhood Muslim militants. A smoldering young man, Karim is tired of his dad's advice to keep his head down and make no trouble. The illicit affair between Nazneen and Karim begins as a long flirtation over many months and many scenes, with the quick yearning glances and half-troubled smiles of people whose emotional temperature rises against the red line of mutually shared morality. The older of Nazneen's two daughters, who thinks of herself as British, not Bangladeshi, knows something is up and huffs off to her room when Karim stops by.

Played with many subtle nuances by the lovely Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nazneen eventually struggles to find her own identity in the face of men who project their ideals of womanhood onto her. Her husband would be better off returning to Bangladesh, her children's home is in the United Kingdom and she is suspended between worlds.

Brick Lane is an empathetic examination of life in diaspora seen through a lucid cinematic eye. In the opening scene concerning the unexplained suicide of Nazneen's mother, the dead woman floats on the village stream amid the lily pads, her red sari spread like bright flower petals on the surface of the water.