With "Trishna," writer and director Michael Winterbottom updates Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" with decidedly mixed results.
In his classic 1891 novel, Hardy tells the story of a "pure" woman whose life is destroyed by love and circumstance. Though intelligent, spirited and responsible, Hardy's Tess is a victim of fate, and incidents over which she has no control send her down a path toward tragedy that she is powerless to veer off of. Socioeconomic and cultural strictures further doom Hardy's heroine.
In Winterbottom's reinterpretation, Trishna (Freida Pinto), is a young woman living in rural Rajasthan, India, helping her poverty-stricken family make ends meet by teaching traditional dance at a nearby resort. One night after work she meets Jay (Riz Ahmed), a charming young British businessman who has come to India to work in his father's hotel business. Trishna becomes infatuated with Jay, and he is taken with her innocence and beauty.
After a Jeep accident leaves Trishna's father disabled, Jay offers Trishna a job at his father's hotel in Jaipur. Feeling both a responsibility to her family and the seductive pull of Jay and a life in the city, Trishna accepts.
Jay lavishes his new employee with gifts, and Trishna becomes even more enthralled with the man she is beholden to. After he rescues her from a near-mugging, Jay seduces Trishna. Shaken and filled with regret, Trishna returns home, where her father treats her with disgust over the loss of both her wages and her innocence.
Jay tracks her down, and persuades her to leave her factory job and live with him in Mumbai. When, after a fair amount of time has passed, Trishna tells Jay she had become pregnant during their first encounter in Jaipur, he pulls away from her in anger. The next day, he leaves for England to visit his hospitalized father (Roshan Seth).
Trishna blossoms in Jay's absence, thriving at hospitality school and making friends at a dance class. Nevertheless, when Jay returns from Britain, she reunites with him. But his feelings for her have changed, and his treatment of her becomes increasingly sadistic and exploitative. Hopeless and humiliated, Trishna is pushed to a desperate act that dooms her.
The idea of setting Hardy's classic story in contemporary India was an inspired one. India in the digital age is going through much the same sort of transformation as 19th century England went through as it moved from the agrarian to the industrial age, and examining Hardy's themes in a modern context is compelling.
Unfortunately, the film is less so.
The problems lie solidly at the feet of Winterbottom. In the first place, he chose as his lead character an actress who does not yet have the chops to carry a role of this weight. Though undeniably beautiful, Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") lacks the skills to carry a film this dark and heavy on her own, and she delivers a flat, affectless performance. Ahmed's portrayal of the cad Jay is similarly apathetic.
In their defense, Winterbottom has not given them much of a script to work with. The film has a cinema verite feel, and much of the dialogue seems ad libbed and the rest is stilted. Paired with the wooden performances, the dialogue gives no insights into the motivations of the lead characters, though insights are needed mightly.
Magnifying the problem is Winterbottom's decision to collapse Hardy's two antagonists, Alec d'Uberville and Angel Clare, into one character. By merging the traits of two characters (who serve as foils to one another in the original novel) into one, Winterbottom has made Jay into a man whose actions are arbitrary, hypocritical and ultimately, incomprehensible.
The film, though slow, is interesting enough until Jay's return to Mumbai, at which point his character and the film go off the rails. Without explanation, Jay's treatment of Trishna becomes harshly abusive and dehumanizing. It is unclear why Trishna chooses to subject herself to this, when she had been doing so well without him. It might well be that it is her love for Jay that dooms her to a life of being treated like chattel, but nothing in Pinto's portrayal convinces us that Trishna is capable of emotion that deep.
2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Roshan Seth
DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
RATING: R for sexuality, some violence, drug use and language
THE LOWDOWN: A retelling of "Tess of the d'Urberville," set in contemporary India.