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Eclectic director Michael Winterbottom brought raw power to a Thomas Hardy adaptation once before, with Jude in 1996. In Trishna, he updates Tess of the d’Urbervilles to contemporary Rajasthan, India, delivering more emotionally muted yet arresting results, with Freida Pinto instilling fragile dignity into Hardy’s tragic heroine.
The 1891 novel has been adapted multiple times for British television, but seldom for the big screen. Its best-known film version is Roman Polanski’s 1979 Tess, starring the director’s partner at that time, Nastassja Kinski. Hardy subtitled the book “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented,” and Winterbottom honors that view of the story, even if he streamlines much of the narrative detail and blends the characters of libertine Alec and more well-intentioned but ultimately weak Angel into a single figure, Jay (Riz Ahmed).
The spoilt son of a wealthy, blind hotelier (the ever-distinguished Roshan Seth in a brief but incisive appearance), Jay was raised and educated in England. In India to explore opportunities in Mumbai, he struggles to resist his father’s efforts to get him involved in the hotel business. While he’s traveling with three buddies from home, the lovely Trishna (Pinto) catches his eye during a tour of an ancient temple. A second encounter cements the attraction, but when he next sees the 19-year-old girl, she is recovering from a road accident that injured her father and wrecked his jeep, which is the large family’s sole means of earning a living.
Jay arranges for Trishna to leave her remote village and work at one of his father’s luxury hotels. A delicate courtship begins, with Jay hypnotized by every glimpse of Trishna, now effectively in his employ, while she remains demure around him.
Unlike his direct counterpart in Hardy’s novel, Jay initially is presented with some noble intentions, enrolling Trishna in a hotel management course so she can improve her prospects. And when he rescues her from harassment on the city streets late one night and makes an unscheduled stop on the way home, their sexual initiation is more seduction than violation.
However, the shame Trishna feels causes her to flee back to her village, where she discovers she is pregnant and is forced to have an abortion, losing her father’s respect. Sent to work in her uncle’s factory, Jay tracks her down and takes her to Mumbai. Their relationship flourishes during this idyll as he flirts with becoming a film producer and Trishna is accepted by his hipster friends. But when Jay’s father suffers a stroke back in England, Trishna rashly shares the secret of her pregnancy and abortion, driving a wedge between them as he’s leaving.
Winterbottom is less interested in echoing precise events from the late-Victorian novel than he is in exploring how love can be poisoned by class divisions, even in a modern, urbanized environment. Jay evidently sees himself as an evolved man, but never treats Trishna as an equal, underestimates her complexity and remains insensitive to his growing humiliation of her when he returns from England.
With nobody else willing to oversee the family business, Jay reluctantly goes back to Rajasthan. Since living openly as an unmarried couple there would be socially unacceptable, he suggests that Trishna resume working as a hotel maid, scheduling increasingly emotionless sexual trysts when she delivers his meals. Bored, resentful and frequently hitting the hash pipe, Jay’s treatment of her becomes steadily more abusive.
Given that The Claim also drew loosely from Hardy, it’s clear Winterbottom’s fascination with the author runs deep. In Jude, he had formidable leads in Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston to breathe passion and wrenching pain into the author’s ill-fated lovers. As easy as they both are on the eyes, Pinto and Ahmed are more limited in their expressiveness. Still, the restraint of the performances feeds nicely into what’s overall quite a gentle tone, even if what should be a shattering conclusion is not as affecting as it might have been.
Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shoots the dusty landscapes and teeming cities in a rough-edged documentary style that breathes restless energy and a fitting sense of uncertainty into the story. Composer Shigeru Umebayashi and Amit Trivedi, who contributed a handful of original songs, enhance the action with a flavorful mix of orchestral score (notably a gorgeously languid, melancholy waltz theme) with traditional and contemporary Indian sounds.
Visually and aurally, the film benefits from a strong sense of place, without overworking the ethnic exotica. If this transposition of Hardy comes up a little short in emotional impact, it nonetheless is a distinctive new take on a classic story.
Bottom Line: Freida Pinto’s incandescent beauty gives this somewhat dramatically underpowered Hardy adaptation a beguiling center.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Revolution Films, Bob Film Sweden, Film I Vast
Cast: Frieda Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Roshan Seth, Meeta Vasisht, Harish Khanna
Director-screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Melissa Parmenter, Michael Winterbottom
Executive producers: Andrew Eaton, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Shali Shah
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: David Bryan
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi, Amit Trivedi
Costume designer: Niharika Khan
Editor: Mags Arnold
Sales: Bankside Films
No rating, minutes.
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