Starring Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed. Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. 14A. 114 min. Opens July 20.
Though better loved for his collaborations with Steve Coogan on 24 Hour Party People and The Trip, Michael Winterbottom expresses an equally strong loyalty to Thomas Hardy. A drama that transplants the 19th-century writer’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern-day India, Trishna is the third Winterbottom feature based on a Hardy novel. What the British filmmaker and his literary forebear share is a bleak take on the constraints of class, the cruelties of fate, and the burden of shame. All three themes are accounted for in Winterbottom’s bold, often arresting, but emotionally frigid reworking of Hardy’s romantic tragedy.
In place of the author’s ill-fated Wessex lass, the director presents the titular Trishna (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto), a beautiful 19-year-old living a humble life with her bustling family in a village in rural India. One day at a temple, she catches the eye of a tourist named Jay (Riz Ahmed), the British-raised son of a wealthy hotelier. Besotted with this vision of loveliness, Jay comes to Trishna’s rescue when she experiences her first piece of bad fortune. He continues to woo her after Trishna comes to work at a luxury hotel that he has taken over near Jaipur. Alas, the dynamic that develops will reinforce rather than transcend the socioeconomic disparity between them. And though things get rosier when the couple relocates to Mumbai—where the increasingly feckless Jay plays at being a movie producer—this once-promising affair soon turns toxic.
The decision to relocate Hardy’s tale from England is a smart one; after all, class conflict isn’t what it used to be in Old Blighty, whereas the caste system is alive and well in this corner of the world. The locale also allows Trishna to serve as a harsh corrective to the fantasies that Bollywood (and Hollywood, for that matter) typically peddle about great loves that conquer all. Capturing India in a series of evocative glimpses, the restless camerawork and editing style give the film considerable energy. Yet Trishna’s cold, hard edge hinders the emotional connection necessary for the story to have more dramatic force. Hardy would have been impressed with Winterbottom’s determination to deny his audience any easy comforts, but even he might have wished the movie’s passions ran a little higher.