Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) was only 17 when she was yanked from her village in the verdant countryside of Bangladesh and shipped to London for an arranged marriage. And in Brick Lane, director Sarah Gavron's quietly observant and quite beautiful adaptation of the Monica Ali novel, Nazneen, now 33, a wife and mother, is still struggling to fit in, trying to find her place in the world.
Set in a swath of East London where the street signs appear in English and Bengali, where the markets and curry shops cater to thousands upon thousands of South Asian immigrants, Brick Lane offers a touching portrait of a woman who feels displaced and alone, even as she dutifully tends to, and shares a bed with, her considerably older husband, Chanu (Satish Kaushik). A jolly, portly gent who prides himself on his literary acumen - quoting from Thackeray and the Brontes - Chanu initially comes across as pompous, fatuous, a believer in the possibilities of upward mobility in British society.
Those beliefs are sorely tested when he loses an expected promotion to a (white) colleague. His beliefs about family are likewise shaken when Nazneen - who has provided her husband with a pair of daughters, 14 and 10 - falls for a handsome, bright-eyed young British Bangladeshi. Karim (Christopher Simpson) shows up with a pile of designer jeans knockoffs for Nazneen to sew - it's a way for her to make extra money - and stays, during the course of subsequent visits, for tea, for talk.
The timidity and resignation with which Nazneen has led her life begin to be replaced by something else - passion, excitement, the dreams of another sort of existence, one less about acceptance and obligation, and more about, yes, love. There's a wonderful moment when Karim stops by Nazneen's drab council house apartment: Although there has been no physical contact, there's no doubt what's going through their minds. As Karim gets set to leave, closing the door behind him, he presses his hand flat against its pebbled glass. From the inside, she places her hand against the glass, too, their fingers splayed out together, but not touching.
With a younger sister left behind in Bangladesh, with her husband's fussy views about education and manners, work and parenting, and with the shock and horror of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 - a day that throws the Muslim community of East London into a panic, and then into paranoia - Nazneen faces a mounting personal crisis.
Her elder daughter Shahana (Naeema Begum) isn't any help, either, as she goes through the throes of adolescence - an emotional buffeting compounded by what she senses is going on with her mother and this other man.
The performances in Brick Lane are all strong - Chatterjee's is a wonder of soulful restraint - and the story is heartbreaking, really. There have been complaints from fans of Ali's book that Gavron and her scriptwriters have pared the novel down too far - losing a richness of character, scale and detail in the process.
But while the film pivots around Nazneen, perhaps at the expense of other characters, it doesn't sell her short. This is a rich, revealing and elegant portrait, and one well worth spending time with.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.