Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brick Lane Opens

Abuse stemming from arranged marriages in the Islamic world has been largely ignored by the media. Horror stories like that of Shafilea Ahmed are becoming increasingly common in Europe, so one would think the practice would offer powerful grist for cinematic drama. Despite some initial suggestions to the contrary, Brick Lane does not pick up that gauntlet. Opening Friday in New York, Lane is a very well acted, but confused and contradictory film that ultimately shrinks from causing offense to any inclined to take umbrage (trailer here).

As it opens, Lane, named for the London neighborhood traditionally home to successive immigrant communities, appears willing to honestly address the realities of life for Muslim women. Following her mother’s drowning suicide, teenaged Nazneen is sent from her idyllic Bangladeshi village to London in an arranged marriage with an older man she has never met. Director Sarah Gavron then flash-forwards sixteen years, finding Nazneen still married to Chanu, a corpulent blowhard, with two westernized teenaged daughters.

All the terms of the marriage, including those of their marriage bed, favor Chanu. She gives, he takes. However, when he rashly quits his position after being passed over for a promotion, he has difficulty holding up his minimal end of the bargain. As a result, she takes on piecemeal seamstress work to help make ends meet. In doing so, she meets the younger, passionate Karim, experiencing forbidden love at extreme risk to her position in the Bangladeshi community.

As Nazneen, Tannishta Chatterjee’s performance is flat-out remarkable. Unfortunately, the entire film comes crashing down around her. While Lane starts as a fairly eloquent portrayal of a lonely and loveless arranged marriage, a radical about-face comes late in the film, undermining Nazneen’s presumed motivations and making her final decision completely inexplicable.

When portraying Muslim characters, Lane treads ever so lightly, taking extreme pains to avoid offense. When the September 11th attacks occur, their only significance in the film is the admittedly legitimate concern about anti-Muslim backlashes. When Chanu challenges the rhetoric of the increasingly radicalized Karim at a meeting, the characters and film essentially just shrug it off. In the end, the very practice of arranged marriage is in effect exonerated, even glorified. Frankly, the only Islamic character Lane is willing to cast in a consistently negative light is the usurious Mrs. Islam—an evil capitalist.

Along the way Gavron and DP Robbie Ryan create some striking visuals. However, Lane is at heart the cinematic equivalent of an Oprah book (it is actually based on a novel by Monica Ali), boasting sensitivity to all, but deathly afraid of offending anyone, no matter how extreme. In the process, tremendous performances by Chatterjee and Satish Kaushik as Chanu are undercut by the weaknesses of the script. It opens Friday in New York at the Sunshine.