Prolific, versatile director Michael Winterbottom apparently feels a special affinity for the novels of Thomas Hardy. After a straightforward (and underappreciated) version of “Jude the Obscure,” simply titled “Jude,” (1996), he did “The Claim” (2000), an imaginative adaptation of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” that transposed the story to the California of the 1867 Gold Rush. Now he’s turned to “Tess of the D’Ubervilles,” which Roman Polanski had made as “Tess” in 1979.
But once again Winterbottom’s treatment isn’t a mere retelling; he’s relocated the tale of the beautiful farm girl who suffers tragedy in her relations with men to modern India, which is undergoing a socio-economic transformation not unlike the one England experienced in Hardy’s nineteenth century. And he’s adjusted the cast of characters, combining the book’s two male “leads” into a single person while radically simplifying the story and toying with its details. The result, called “Trishna” or the Indian Tess, has some structural problems, but overall it’s precisely the sort of surprising, uneven but oddly compelling take on Hardy you’d expect from a filmmaker of Winterbottom’s idiosyncrasy and daring.
Freida Pinto gives a reserved, intermittently powerful performance as Trishna, the eldest daughter in a large, impoverished rural family who, during a night out dancing, catches the eye of Jay (Riz Ahmed), the handsome, well-spoken son of a blind business magnate (Roshan Seth). After her father is injured in a road accident, falling asleep while driving a load of produce to market, she accepts an offer from Jay to work in the hotel he’s managing for his father in order to earn money to support her family. There she works as a waitress and becomes Jay’s lover—and when she gets pregnant, returns home and has an abortion.
Jay wants her back, however, and their renewed relationship eventually takes them to Mumbai, where he’s decamped to try his hand in India’s booming film industry. That briefly takes the film into Bollywood territory, offering Trishna a possible route to independence. But instead she returns to Jay, now ensconced in another of his father’s hotels, and becomes his openly kept woman, alternately bringing him his food as he lies lethargically in bed and servicing his other desires until she can tolerate it no more.
While treating the source far more liberally, Winterbottom manages to capture Hardy’s take on the tragic clash of genders and the social values they represent at least as well as Polanski did in his far straighter version—perhaps better in terms of the final scene between Trishna and Jay, which carries a genuine wallop. At the same time there’s a lackadaisical, meandering feel that creeps into the picture, especially in the second half, which derives to some extent from the director’s penchant for improvisation and his use of non-professions in secondary roles. Overall, however, “Trishna” remains one of his more fully realized recent efforts.
It’s also well acted, especially by Pinto. Ahmed is also good, though as written Jay, though obviously manipulative and mercenary, doesn’t reach the abusive level that might have made Trishna’s final act easier to accept. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography manages to be both gritty and colorful, and a combination of songs by Amit Trivedi and an original score by Shigeru Umebayashi complements the visuals imaginatively.
“Trishna” is an intriguing addition to the work of an erratic but always interesting filmmaker.