Michael Winterbottom’s third Thomas Hardy adaptation moves Tess of the D’Urbervilles to contemporary India with mixed results. At the centre of the film experience is a frustrating conflict between the operatic melodrama of Hardy’s original story and Winterbottom’s realism. The latter ultimately negates the plot’s effectiveness, resulting in a film which is viscerally satisfying but probably not worthy of its own story.
India is beautiful in Trishna. Winterbottom’s relaxed, elegant frames depict a country which doesn’t need to be meticulously set up by a film crew in order to stun us, and we’re rewarded for it; the sense of casual observation makes the country’s splendour, urban and rural alike, all the more accessible. For the budgeted traveler – the type, that is, whose visits to other countries generally involve a movie ticket and a healthy dose of imagination – Trishna is probably about the best value out there. In part, this is because of the breakneck pace at which we experience the film’s locations. Scenic or not, the editor keeps the shots short and to the point, and we feel as one might upon driving down a road in rural India: overwhelmed with beauty and never able to capture it all.
Curiously, though, Trishna drags. The pacing of the film is better than the pacing of the story. The first act, focusing primarily on the burgeoning romance between Freida Pinto’s Trishna, a quiet villager, and Riz Ahmed’s Jay, the somewhat apathetic son of a wealthy British businessman, is a headlong joy. The fevered pace of the film perfectly matches the giggly impetuousness of young love, and keeps the tragic elements of the early story somewhat at bay (there’s time enough, later, for unpleasantness). When it reaches its second act, though, the film’s pace begins to grate. The editing tells us that we’re moving quickly, but we quickly clue in that we’re not, as Winterbottom, seemingly untrusting of the audience’s ability to recognize the beauty of Trishna or the smoldering passion in Jay, gives us scene after scene of beautifully-shot montages and sequences of a relationship developed entirely through sly glances and quiet smiles. By the time the two finally kiss, Trishna has made it very clear that even two beautiful people falling in love can overstay their welcome on the screen.
And beautiful people they are. Winterbottom can’t resist showing off Pinto as often and as unabashedly as he does India, and the camera lingers lovingly on her face to the point where one wonders if the film desires to control Pinto’s beauty as Jay does Trishna’s. The men in Trishna’s life, first her father, then her lover, gradually come to resent her. Her brooding father is threatened by the financial support she offers the family, and Jay, eventually, is equally threatened by her potential to support herself. Both men want her to be free until she is successful; when she is, they not only resent it but want to punish her for it. Winterbottom’s choice to place Hardy’s story of traditionalism and sexual double standards in India gradually becomes more pointed, but never crosses the line into a critique of specifically Indian traditional values. The treatment of patriarchy and male resentment of female freedom is broad enough, and effective enough, to appeal universally, and at times where the director’s inconsistent storytelling threatens to undo the film’s arguments, his unabashedly gut-level scenes of emotional and sexual domination do a great deal in supporting them.
One of the boldest choices in Winterbottom’s adaptation is the fusion of two of the novel’s characters, libertine Alec and reverend’s son Angel, into the single character of Jay. Here, the film diverges significantly from the novel’s love triangle to the suggestion that both characters, with their vices and their virtues, can exist in one man. Ahmed does his best with the difficult dichotomy this creates in his character, and Jay’s inconsistency ends up on the line between effectively menacing and irritatingly disengaging. The cynical argument of this choice, if accepted, is unsettling. Jay, a well-adjusted, content, well-off person, turns out not only to be false in his liberalism, but capable of calculated, brutal emotional torture, and Winterbottom doesn’t want us to see Jay as an unusual, secretly sick man – he wants us to understand that this darkness lurks in the fabric of culture and in the traditions of patriarchy. Jay’s hatred is the product of a worldview, not of a singular evil, and Winterbottom wants us to be the more terrified for it. Whether we are or not depends on whether we buy Jay, and the film’s often-improvised dialogue and stunted pacing don’t always make this easy for us.
Trishna is worth watching just for the beauty of India, and that’s not a back-handed compliment. The film has a solid cast, a talented lead actress, and visual energy to spare. It’s not the most pleasant story in the world, but there’s joy enough to be taken from around the tragedy, and even if Trishna doesn’t make its points completely effectively, they’re points well worth discussing.
Written and Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Roshan Seth
Runtime 117 mins