Michael Winterbottom is not the first filmmaker to adopt Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles for the screen, but he is the first to adopt it by changing its setting. By doing so, the writer/director of Trishna reframes — and to a certain extent obscures — the novel’s underlying social and thematic thrust.
Hardy’s piece was set in the late 19th century, telling the story of a poor, but beautiful girl from the west of England. Winterbottoms’s present day Trishna moves the bones of Hardy’s story to India, where he re-imagines it as collision of multiple contemporary forces – the social mores of old and new India and the affect of globalization on the deepening gap between rural and urban.
Before we meet the title character, Trishna, we meet her eventual suitor, Jay (Riz Ahmed), the rich son of wealthy family that owns hotels throughout the country. Jay is of Indian descent, but he was born in England. As the film opens he is with three friends, one Indian and two British, who are carousing about the Indian countryside, exploring its exotic side. That marijuana-hazed trip lands them in the tiny and remote village where Trishna (Freida Pinto) lives, a beautiful peasant girl and the eldest daughter in a large and poor family. At a dance at a hotel, Jay approaches Trishna, who is there with her young sisters. They dance, and later that night, Jay and his friends offer her a ride home in their rickshaw. And that is the end of it.
But the beauty has left her imprint on Jay, and he comes back to seek her. The girl has broken her arm in an auto accident that left her father badly injured, and Trishna’s family is in bad financial shape. Jay extends an invitation for her to come and work at one of his father’s hotels, and for a poor girl from the country, it is a lucrative opportunity, impossible to turndown. The prospect of getting out of town and into the world is, for Trishna, equally exciting.
As with his last film, The Trip, Winterbottom feels here like a director in love with being on the move. The early drama of Trishna is replete with visual parentheses, travel footage of monkeys and temples, suited waiters carrying tea and plushy-furnitured garden exteriors. At the hotel, one of Trishna’s duties involves caring for Jay’s father’s beloved caged birds, which flutter and fly, filling Winterbottom’s lens with plume. It is a very novelistic metaphor, and one that guides us into Trishna’s main themes, but on screen it comes across a little too overtly.
Yes, Trishna is a caged bird, a beautiful play thing for the idly aimless Jay. Yet there is something endearing at first about their long and studied courtship, the play of eyes of the pair’s unspoken passing in the garden porticos. The restraint is broken after Trishna attends a friend’s wedding in a bustling city center and Jay, keeping careful watch over his canary, swoops her off the street on a motorbike just as too unruly young men begin to make threatening advances. He’s a knight in black biker wear, but suddenly Trishna is packing her bags and heading back home.
Freida Pinto’s performance is the film’s strongest, and it establishes much of the movie’s feeling. As the country girl, she brings to bare a trembling fragility masked by shy poise. In the city, she never feels quite assimilated, which helps build the film’s tension. As her romance with Jay deepens, we become continually more sensitive to the fact that she has no safety net, that the rich boy has brought her into a life that he holds complete control over. If, for some reason, he leaves, her fall will be severe and tragic. Ahmed delivers a less subtle performance as Jay, palpably priggish as he languishes in the luxury of his fortuitous birth. Late in the film, however, he undergoes a sudden and brutal transformation that seems incongruous with his prior self if only because it betrays a vigor that the lazy boy never possesses. Jay is more the neglecting, rather than the breaking type.
But break our songbirds must, in a fluttering fall that is dramatically unsatisfying, yet symbolically poignant. What Winterbottom seems most determined to do is call our attention to the corruptive effect of wealth and the inclination of the wealthy to commodity and consume that which they hold dear. The final ten minutes of the film offer a lyric, if overwrought, synthesis of Trishna’s sorry tale in line with India’s own, implying a conflicted India caught in a crisis of conscious. If Hardy’s novel brought to bear the corrosive powers of the modern world eroding the old ways, Winterbottom’s film suggests not only that there are still corners of the developing world with old ways to erode, but that the modern world itself, with its cinema of fantasies and wealthy brokers of fortune, is caught up in a continuing story of personal corruption.