Film Review: Trishna

Imaginative, evocative adaptation of a classic Victorian novel is fresh and compelling, with Freida Pinto delivering a moving performance as the tragic heroine.

Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, succeeds in all sorts of ways, starting with his spot-on notion to re-imagine the story in contemporary India. British directors seem to have their nation’s former colony much on their minds, with John Madden taking us on a sentimental tour of the subcontinent in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel earlier in the year. Like that movie, Trishna is beautifully lensed, but Winterbottom is more ambitious than Madden, determined to capture India in all its colorful chaos—impoverished villages, sprawling cities, ancient ruins, elegant resorts—as well as faithfully retell Hardy’s tragic tale of a good woman done wrong.

Hardy’s Tess, the beautiful daughter of indigent tenant farmers in Wessex, is forced by her parents to seek succor from a wealthy relative after she accidentally kills the family’s horse (and main source of income). The relative, Alec d’Uberville, an idle and dissipated heir, offers her work at his country estate tending his blind mother’s poultry, but his true intent is seduction. Eventually he rapes her, or at least has his way with her—literary scholars insist on interpreting the act ambiguously—and Tess is ruined.

Alec is but the first of several predatory, exploitative and moralizing men, all of whom want Tess’ body, labor or soul, as the case may be, but none of whom can be bothered with her as a person in her own right, and certainly not as an independent woman. One of these, Angel Clare, atheist son of a fundamentalist minister, actually has the best intentions for Tess, and weds her despite her protestations. When he learns of her disgrace with Alec, however, he abandons her without consummating their marriage. Once again Tess is left to fend for herself—like so many heroines of the period, her grim fate seems predestined—until, reconnecting with Alec, she allows herself to become his mistress in exchange for his support of her destitute family. Angel’s unexpected return following a change of heart (“Too late, too late,” Tess laments) brings the novel to its cruel climax.

Winterbottom adheres to Hardy’s narrative closely—the dead horse becomes a wrecked jeep, the poultry become caged songbirds, and so on—with one notable if understandable change: He combines the characters of Alec and Angel into one, a rich British-educated young man named Jay (Riz Ahmed) who has returned to India to run his father’s upscale resorts in Rajasthan, a rural region in the northwest. Jay is spoiled but charming, a layabout with delusions of grandeur. As Angel first glimpses Tess at a May pole dance, so Jay encounters Trishna (Freida Pinto) at a traditional dance festival and becomes infatuated. He arranges for her to work at one of his father’s hotels, initiating a series of events that ends as badly for him as for Tess.

Actually, Winterbottom takes one more liberty with Hardy’s tale. Tess is set entirely in pastoral England at a time when technology was changing social mores as well as agricultural practice. A significant portion of Trishna takes place in Mumbai, where Jay brings our heroine so they can live openly as lovers, and he can play at being a Bollywood producer. Winterbottom and Hardy’s concerns remain the same, nevertheless: the persistence of class prejudices and crabbed social conventions, the pernicious double standard for men and women in sexual desire as well as economic opportunity, and the liberating yet destructive effects of modernism.

A prolific and eclectic director whose films range in style and subject from Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story to The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom brilliantly captures the contradictions of a country struggling to transform itself at the start of a new century. His quick-cut editing, creating what amounts to montages of rural and urban, ancient and modern India, really do put you in the picture, as we used say. As usual, Winterbottom gets superb performance from his actors, Ahmed the epitome of the new international playboy—lazy, insatiable and suffering from anomie—and Pinto as vulnerable and plaintive as she is sultry. Surely one of the world’s most beautiful women, she proves she can carry a film with her acting.

Trishna, like Tess, suffers from a contrived, if inevitable, ending, and Winterbottom, again like Hardy, can be heavy-handed to a fault. But his film translation of the late-Victorian novel is anything but stuffy. Lovely to watch, with an evocative score, and enough sex to offset the sermonizing, Trishna seems timely and timeless at once, and reminds the literary-minded among us of how modern was old Mr. Hardy.