Kit Kittredge & Brick Lane

Kit Kittredge & Brick Lane featured image

by Marc Glassman.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Patricia Rozema, director; Ann Peacock, script. Starring: Abigail Breslin (Kit Kittredge), Julia Ormond (her mother), Chris O’Donnell (her father), Stanley Tucci (Jefferson Berk, the magician), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Gibson, the editor), Joan Cusack (Miss Bond, the mobile librarian), Jane Krakowski (Miss Dooley, the dance instructor), Glenne Headly (Mrs. Howard), Zach Mills (Stirling Howard), Kenneth Welsh (Uncle Hendrick), Max Thieriot (Will Shepherd), Willow Smith (Countee), Madison Davenport (Ruthie), Colin Mochrie (Mr. Pennington)

Brick Lane Sarah Gavron, director; Abi Morgan & Laura Jones, script based on the novel by Monica Ali. Starring: Tannishtha Chatterjee (Nazneen), Satish Kaushik (Chanu), Christopher Simpson (Karim), Naeema Begum (Shahana), Lana Rahman (Bibi), Zafreen (Hasina)

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

It’s July the 4th, the best possible time to celebrate the American Girl. But this girl—plucky Kit Kittredge, an 11 year-old would-be reporter in Depression-era Cincinnati—has an unexpected Canadian twist. Her film is directed Canada’s own Patricia Rozema, whose first feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing was a Cannes award winner 21 years ago. And the film, financed by a multitude of Americans including HBO and the Weinsteins, was shot in Toronto last summer with a number of Canadian character actors including Kenneth Welsh as Kit’s tight fisted Uncle Hendrick and Colin Mochrie as ex-patrician hobo Mr. Pennington.

Welsh and Mochrie join a classy cast of thespians including the sophisticated Julia Ormond (Sabrina) as the lovely Mrs. Kittredge, Chris O’Donnell (Robin in Batman and Robin) as Kit’s beloved Dad, very literary Wallace Shawn (My Dinner with Andre) as newspaper editor Mr. Gibson, Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal) as improbably cute dance instructor Miss Dooley, Stanley Tucci (Big Night) as mysterious Magician Jefferson Berk, the wonderfully wacky Joan Cusack (Working Girl, Friends with Money) as mobile librarian Miss Bond and Glenne Headley (Dick Tracy, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Winchell) as the dour Mrs. Howard. Heading up the film as the clever, feisty Kit is Abigail Breslin, the current “it” girl among the pre-pubescent set for her engaging performance in Little Miss Sunshine.

American Girl, for those who don’t know it, is a franchise that extols the virtue and skill of young women in the USA, through a best selling line of books, dolls and paraphernalia. Kit is one of their beloved heroines, the kind of charming, optimistic and hard-working girl that appeals to millions of Americans, and one suspects, a number of foreigners as well.

The storyline for Rozema’s film is well conceived. It’s 1934, the depth of the Great Depression, and young Kit Kittredge’s father loses his car dealership. Mrs. Kittredge is forced to take in boarders to pay the bills while Kit’s Dad heads to Chicago to look for work. The boarders are, of course, the wacky crew described earlier: the magician, librarian, dance instructor and dour mother.

The Depression has produced one thing—an underclass of hobos, living in shantytowns and despised by the remaining middle class. Kit and her mother befriend two young ‘bos, Will and Countee, who are, respectively, an American White Southern lad and his young black friend. When Will is accused of robbery, Kit and her friends fly into action, in the best Nancy Drew fashion. They investigate and find out that hobos may be noble and others—even boarders—may be less sincere.

The Depression era is marvelously evoked through music, fashion and cinematography in this lovely, slowly paced film. Will Kit Kittredge enthrall the public? I think so; she’s an old-fashioned girl in a quaint film filled with well-loved verités. Not hip—but can’t that be a good thing?

Brick Lane

An ancient street in London, Brick Lane has been the host for countless immigrants: Jews, Scottish Calvinists and lately Muslims. Back in the Victorian era, it was called Whitechapel Lane, the home for the victims of the notorious Jack the Ripper. Now it’s the site for curry houses, outdoor markets and Bangladeshi families—and the inspiration for a movie and a novel.

Monica Ali’s book on the current Muslim population in the district, Brick Lane, launched her to international literary stardom. The result—a sincere attempt to put the story on to the screen—was bound to occur. Well shot and cast, the film dramatizes the life of Nazneen, a beautiful youngish mother of two daughters, Shahana and Bibi, who has been living in Brick Lane with her husband Chanu for a decade and a half.

Chanu is an intellectual South Asian, who was raised during the dying days of the British Empire. He still believes in the English civil service, the empiricist philosophers and an honourable code of ethics that disappeared around the time of the Ripper killings. Nazneen and Chanu are bound together by tradition, not love—and their daughters know it. When Chanu quits his job and Nazneen decides to make some money by sewing clothes, change seems inevitable.

The handsome young Karim arrives to have batches of jeans altered—and more than clothing is changed. A forbidden affair between Nazneen and Karim occurs right around the time that 9/11 changes life in Brick Lane forever.

Character study turns to melodrama as the film (and book) asks the questions: what should Nazneen do? Leave her husband? Should the alienated Chanu return to Bangladesh with his family? Will 9/11 radicalize Karim?

Brick Lane has been attacked by the British Bangladeshi community for its forthright depiction of their life in London and yet the novel and the film don’t go far enough. We understand Nazneen’s dissatisfaction but never truly get inside her. We want to embrace the film—but can’t. Brick Lane comes close to being brilliant but the elements never cohere. Like Nazneen, its wonderful parts don’t add up to a gorgeous whole.

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