Brick Lane feels something like the Kramer Vs. Kramer of Bangladeshi domestic issues—it addresses sexual and social freedom rather than divorce and single parenting, but with the same feeling of slowly fumbling through the radical ideas that women are more than humble household servants, and men are more than simple stereotypes. Like Kramer, it can be insultingly timid about these ideas, and given that Indian writer-director Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth, Water) has covered similar ground more boldly and beautifully, Brick Lane feels slight and late to the table. Still, its pretty musings about small-scale self-actualization can be seductive.
Tannishtha Chatterjee stars as a Bangladeshi girl shipped from her small rural village for an arranged marriage with "educated older man" Satish Kaushik, a fat, pompous, self-styled intellectual living in a run-down East London tenement and working a small-time office job. Trained from childhood to be obedient and accepting—"If Allah wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men," her mother told her, shortly before committing suicide—Chatterjee plays meek wife to Kaushik for more than a decade, bearing him children, cowering in the safety of their apartment, living for letters from her sister abroad, and dreaming of a trip home that never materializes. Then she gets simultaneous tastes of economic and sexual independence through a relationship with sewing-piecework contact Christopher Simpson, and she starts learning to accept desire in several forms.
Brick Lane is mostly notable for all the things it isn't: It skirts the edge of domestic-abuse drama, then threatens to become a standard-issue forbidden-love tale about Simpson and Chatterjee, or an exhausting sisterhood story à la The Color Purple. But while it starts down several familiar paths, it veers away from each one without fully committing to cliché. What's left is a patchwork quilt of plots, not all of which work; ideas like Sept. 11's effect on British Muslims or the compelling portrait of Chatterjee's sullen older daughter, a British-born girl chafing under imported, imparted values, both blow by with minimal impact. Documentarian and first-time feature director Sarah Gavron clutters up the screen with flashy intercuts, visual overlays, and overbearing lighting schemes, trying to jazz up an essentially internal story that's already richly shot. But occasionally her experiments reap rewards, as with the way Gavron depicts Chatterjee's memories as overwhelming sensory experiences that both buoy and mask her dull days. Brick Lane comes far too late to be groundbreaking, and tries to do too much to be fully coherent, but its talent for avoiding obvious choices on all fronts, narratively and stylistically, make it worth a look.