“In all my life, I have never heard you say what you want,” the 14-year-old daughter says with passion to her mother in Brick Lane. We glimpse the mother, Nazneen, growing up in Bangladesh, but mostly she's in London in her early 30s in an arranged marriage with a chubby, jovial man.
The story at the core of this film is that she eventually finds her voice but it's an internal journey and internal journeys are much easier to explore in literature. That said, director Sarah Gavron has done a wonderful job of using the camera, the sound design, everything at her disposal, to reveal this hidden landscape cinematically in her adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, which runs to hundreds of pages.
Gavron has said that Indian-born Tannishtha Chatterjee, whom she cast as Nazneen, “instinctively” understood the role: “We knew she could make the tiny emotional shifts involved on this journey.”
In the last few months, listening to directors talk about casting and performance at various film festivals, many have mentioned that it's all about the eyes. In Brick Lane, most definitely, Tannishtha Chatterjee's face and eyes do all Nazneen's talking. They tell the audience of the turmoil and sadness underneath the surface.
I read somewhere that Chatterjee, to some degree, feared that her on-screen husband Charnu would steal the show. He doesn't but Indian director and actor Satish Kaushik, in his first English-language role, does play Charnu beautifully and with a good deal of complexity.
As an aside, I found it surprising to learn that Chatterjee studied chemistry before moving into acting, but not surprising that she is also a recording artist because she has such control of her voice. It was a delight to see her in this year's Sydney Film Festival competition title Monsoon Shootout. She didn't accompany writer/director Amit Kumar to Sydney but she has been to Australia at least once as a guest of the Asia Pacific Film Awards.
Nazneen's calm dignity is what makes Brick Lane such a quiet, delicate film – the kind of film long since elbowed out of cinemas – but one that still manages to touch on serious themes such as the experience of immigration and 9/11's effect on Muslim communities in the west.
Gavron has been linked to The Fury, a UK film in development that's about the suffragist movement. The screenplay is by Abi Morgan, who co-wrote Brick Lane with Aussie writer Laura Jones. (Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady and Shame with its director, Steve McQueen.)
“I always said, I would not marry and be sent far away, but my mother chose me an educated man living abroad,” Nazneen says early in Brick Lane. “If Allah wanted us to ask questions he would have made us men.”
I bet the characters in The Fury don't say anything similar.
Available at SBS On Demand until 19 February 2021
UK, India, 2007
Language: English, Bengali
Director: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Christopher Simpson, Satish Kaushik, Zafreen
What's it about?
Nazneem (Chatterjee), a young Bangladeshi woman, arrives in 1980s London for an arranged marriage with middle-aged Chanu (Kaushik). As their marriage proves loveless, she fears her soul is quietly dying. That is until the day hot-headed Karim (Simpson) comes knocking at her door. Winner of the CICAE Award at the 2007 San Sebastián International Film Festival.