by Philip Concannon
Michael Winterbottom’s eclectic career has made him a hard filmmaker to pin down, but a recurring touchstone for the director has been the work of Thomas Hardy. In 1996, Winterbottom had his first high-profile success with an adaptation of Jude the Obscure and four years later he made The Claim, a loose retelling of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Winterbottom’s third take on Hardy is his most radical adaptation yet, simultaneously updating and relocating Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern-day India. Trishna is a bold and occasionally beautiful interpretation of the source material, but it’s also a hugely problematic one.
Trishna is also a rare case of Winterbottom handling an adaptation himself rather than working with another writer, and he has produced a screenplay that streamlines and restructures Hardy’s story in a number of ways. Instead of Tess becoming romantically entangled with two men we have Trishna (Freida Pinto) falling for just one, as Riz Ahmed’s Jay embodies characteristics of both Angel Clare and Alec d’Urberville. A Londoner holidaying with friends in the country of his heritage, Jay is wealthy and carefree, in marked contrast to the humble and timid Trishna, who catches his eye when he sees her dancing for tourists at one of his father’s hotels. The class consciousness at the heart of Tess of the d’Urbervilles finds an appropriate parallel here, as the vast divide between India’s rich and poor forces Trishna, desperate to support her family and ailing father, into Jay’s arms. This is where the film promptly stalls.
For what is obviously intended to be a film of tumultuous passions, Trishna is oddly passionless. Pinto and Ahmed are hardly this generation’s Bogie and Bacall (although Ahmed does amusingly attempt a Bogart impersonation at one point) and their stilted performances make it difficult for the audience to invest anything in their relationship. This is the latest in a series of underwhelming displays from Pinto, who is yet to prove that she is anything more than a pretty face, although her meekness here is partly to do with the way her character has been written. Trishna is submissive and naïve, and Pinto brings a demure quality to her work that at least feels consistent with that characterisation (she’s certainly less out of her depth here than she was in the abysmal Miral). The constant passivity of Trishna makes her a maddening protagonist, though, and the stretch of the film in which she is left alone in Mumbai after Jay departs for London is dramatically dead.
As for Ahmed, his biggest challenge is to encompass two different characters into a single performance, and the transition between the two is hardly handled in a graceful manner. The Jay we meet in the first half of the film is cocky but romantic and likeable, and his dogged persistence in attempting to win Trishna’s heart feels like it has its basis in some genuine emotion. After his return in the second half of the picture, it quickly becomes clear that the Alec d’Urberville side of Jay’s personality has taken root, but how and why did this change occur? Is it simply the fallout from a dark secret Trishna reveals just before he leaves? Perhaps it is, but even that seems a flimsy justification for the personality switch he undergoes. For much of the film’s climactic half hour, Jay begins treating Trishna as his personal slave, forcing her to wait on him and using her for increasingly rough and loveless sex, apparently oblivious to the pain and humiliation that is written across her face. There’s not enough in the screenplay or in Ahmed’s awkward turn to make us believe in this character. Jay, like much of the film, seems to exist totally on the surface.
To be fair, it is a lovely surface. The talented cinematographer Marcel Zyskind – who has worked on a number of Winterbottom’s features – fully exploits the vibrant colour and light of the Indian locations, but it’s not just empty beauty; the film is shot with an energy and immersiveness that makes it feel like more than a picture postcard for tourists. Mags Arnold’s editing frequently reminds us of the world that surrounds these characters, with sharp cutaways to the noise and bustle of Indian life, and as is often the case with Winterbottom, the film is at its strongest when he’s at his loosest. It’s the seemingly inconsequential sequences that come closest to taking off here; scenes of burgeoning romance between Pinto and Ahmed bring out both actors’ most appealing sides, while encounters with a group of filmmaking friends in Mumbai have a lively, semi-improvised feel to them.
It’s the story that’s the problem. Paradoxically, it simultaneously feels too stripped-down and yet too weighty for the young actors to bear. We always know that Trishna is sliding towards a tragic denouement, but the opaque nature of Pinto’s performance and the abrupt manner in which the violent finale is handled makes it feel horribly jarring. Winterbottom’s affinity for Thomas Hardy is obvious and we must again applaud his instinct for finding imaginative ways to approach difficult adaptations (could any other director have brought Tristram Shandy to the screen?), but Trishna is a frustrating failure. He has attempted to breathe new life into familiar material by reimagining it for another time and place, but so much has been lost in translation.
Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film.