Sunday, May 5, 2013

The necessity of being disillusioned



Two films of female awakening one based on a book I recently read: 'I Capture the Castle', one based on a book I have not read: 'Brick Lane'. Both drawing on very different visions of England.

In the former, history plays no apparent part - the whole world is the personal world of its narrator, Cassandra. In the latter, history unfolds as a shaping background, we see the startling, shattering events of 9/11, observing some of their consequences even as the focus remains squarely on the personal dilemmas of Nazneen in relation to her family and her place.

The film of 'I Capture the Castle', enjoyable as it is in its own right, coarsens the book in two ways. The first is that it makes the characters, with the exception of Cassandra herself, less likeable. Events, happenings and sayings are invented to support this, often directly against the flow of the book's unfolding narrative. In the book even the predatory photographer, Leda, comes to be begrudgingly accepted into the space of Cassandra's regard.

Second, and more importantly perhaps, the film cannot resist 'explaining things'. In the book, things happen, erupt, bump along in the mysteriousness of their humanity. Being 17, Cassandra cannot be expected to understand everything. Can we at 70? Stuff happens and the miracle of life, suggests Dodie Smith, the book's author, is that we navigate it in all its complexity, finding joy, suffering pain, coping. The film obtrudes a 'knowing narrative' that tries to create connecting linkages: everything must be neatly packaged for the audience, closing down, rather opening up, their own imaginative resources.

Nazneen's awakening is to discover that, to her surprise, she loves her husband (arranged, older, pompous, full of crushed hope and the trail of false prospects yet fundamentally kind) Yet she cannot return with him to Bangladesh when he finds all meaningful paths closed to him in England. She cannot return for her daughters' sake, nor hers. She has rejected the excitement of the younger man, of divorce and re-marriage after their adultery together (and his radicalisation after 9/11) and has realised that her younger sister, left behind in Bangladesh, has trodden a much more difficult path than her own disappointed romantic hopes had projected onto her, greatly more difficult, in fact, than her own. She turns, the film suggests, to her own resources and possibilities and to the fragmented but real life she has been given.

Both are, at heart, about more than coping with the heart's affections, of finding through 'disillusionment' more hopeful prospects - one at the outset of adulthood, one at the midpoint. Both books were written at a time of crisis - Smith's in the Second World War, Ali's in the birth of the war on terrorism - but both affirm the reality of domestic space in very different settings and the resources of that space to give life if it is lived clearly, without illusion and with small, but tender, hopes.


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