Hardy redefined in modern India
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 20, 2012
What a fabulous idea, to transpose “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” -- Thomas Hardy’s tale of manners and morals in 19th-century England -- to modern-day India. The trip from Hardy’s fictional Wessex to Rajasthan and Mumbai -- where class mobility, tradition and globalization clash with dizzying vividness -- presents a tantalizing opportunity to infuse the classic book with new verve, color and relevance.
In the case of “Trishna,” the enterprise is made even more promising by the fact that it has been written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, one of the most protean and inventive filmmakers working today (and one who knows his way around Hardy, having adapted “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and “Jude the Obscure”). That Winterbottom has delivered a dud makes “Trishna” all the more disappointing, a rare unsatisfying swerve from an otherwise reliably provocative career.
It’s not that Winterbottom hasn’t hit on a winning concept. His Trishna (Freida Pinto) helps support her family by dancing at a fancy resort, which is where Jay (Riz Ahmed), the son of a wealthy real-estate developer, first meets her. As a compression of the two main male characters from Hardy’s novel, Jay possesses both the beneficent and malign forces with which Trishna is forced to contend: Beguiled by her grace and beauty, Jay at first seeks to help Trishna by giving her a job at one of his dad’s hotels; after a move to Mumbai and a series of misunderstandings, what were once gestures of caring and support take on a considerably harsher edge.
With a few nips, tucks and adjustments, Hardy’s story of a young woman buffeted by social and economic circumstances migrates easily into 21st-century India, where class and cultural boundaries seem to shift every second. With his signature fluid filming style, Winterbottom captures both the poetry and poverty with equal enthusiasm. But “Trishna” begins to feel unaccountably inert, its tragic denouement rote instead of wrenching. One of the film’s biggest liabilities is Pinto, who first came to international attention in the 2008 hit “Slumdog Millionaire.” Undeniably lovely, Pinto doesn’t possess the expressive range or depth to tackle a role that calls for both (her acting chops proved just as shaky in 2010’s “Miral”).
Without a strong leading lady, Ahmed seems just as at sea with his emotionally conflicted character. In fact, the brightest spot in “Trishna” is the cameo appearance of veteran Indian actor Roshan Seth, who plays Jay’s father with his usual gentle brio. If the rest of “Trishna” had his subtlety and flair, it would be a memorable literary revamp, rather than a well-meaning but forgettable good try.
Contains sexuality, some violence, drug use and profanity. In English and Hindi with subtitles.