Michael Winterbottom, it’s safe to say, has a thing about Thomas Hardy. Not a really big thing, mind you, but enough for the 51-year-old British director to have, since 1996, adapted three of that most dour of Victorian author’s novels to the screen.
The adaptations began with Jude the Obscure (Winterbottom’s version is called Jude), then The Mayor of Casterbridge four years later (The Claim) and now there is Trishna, a loose but nonetheless pretty faithful recasting of Hardy’s penultimate tragedy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
In this case, Winterbottom takes the action out of late-19th-century Wessex and sets it in the teeming tumult of contemporary India, casting the ravishing Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Miral) as the Tess-like Trishna, the eldest daughter in a poor, hard-working family in rural Rajasthan who becomes fatefully entangled with Jay (Riz Ahmed), a Bollywood producer wannabe and the callow, the cunning son of a wealthy property developer-hotelier (Roshan Seth). In a major (and smart) alteration of Hardy’s text, Winterbottom combines Tess’s two main male romantic interests, the lecherous, libidinous nouveau riche Alec and the pious, hypocritical Angel Clare, into the figure of Jay.
To some, shifting Tess to India from England may smack of gimmickry, but, in fact, the subcontinent, with its tensions of class and caste, rural and urban, tradition and modernity, male privilege and female aspiration, provocative dreams and thwarted ambitions, is the perfect venue in which to refresh Hardy’s themes. Blessedly, Winterbottom presents India quite matter-of-factly and not as some exotic hothouse – foreign, to be sure, but familiar too.
While always an ambitious, assured and interesting director, with a prolific and varied output, Winterbottom also has been a rather inconsistent one, alternating fitfully between brilliance (24 Hour Party People is one of the best films of the past 10 years. Period) and listlessness, sometimes in the same movie.
Trishna’s transplant is most successful in its first half as Winterbottom patiently limns Jay’s seduction of the demure, virginal Trishna. Initially, for all the tensions of their differences, the relationship appears to have the potential of being genuinely loving. But since we’re talking Hardy, this is not to be. Returning to Trishna in India after visiting his ailing father in England, Jay becomes progressively crueler and chauvinistic, finally reducing Trishna to no more than his lust slave. The bliss of reunion, provisional though it may have been, eventually turns to hate and shame and soon the viewer realizes that it’s all going to end in tears, sweat and blood.
To his credit, Winterbottom doesn’t soft-pedal this inexorable descent. Indeed, he seems almost to revel in it; at one point, a song swells on the soundtrack to declare: “My love, you taught me how this world really is/ My love, you turned this day into night.”
However, when the sad end does come, it fails to strike with as much force as Winterbottom thinks it should; it’s more an occasion for the viewer to say, “Well, isn’t that too bad,” than a transport into heart-rending grief.
Much of the fault here lies with Pinto – or, more precisely, Winterbottom’s direction of her. While we respond to Pinto’s beauty, feel Trishna’s hesitant curiosity, her peasant strength, her suffering and sadness, we don’t sense much spirit. She’s too passive, bland even, and given too few opportunities to display an inner life or agency that might have both alleviated and illuminated her victimhood. Trishna, in short, seems to occur at too much of a remove; it’s too fate-filled.