The Best Exotic Thomas Hardy Adaptation
In Trishna, director Michael Winterbottom transports the broad storyline and themes of lionized English writer Thomas Hardy's most beloved novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to modern-day India, and the result is engaging, even red hot at times, but also uneven and plagued by a thin central performance. This is the third time the admirable and prolific Winterbottom has adapted Hardy for the screen. First came a faithful adaptation of Jude the Obscure featuring a then-up-and-coming Kate Winslet, then The Claim, an atmospheric and snow-swept Western interpretation of The Mayor of Casterbridge set in California in the era of the gold rush.
The title heroine, played by Freida Pinto, is a beautiful and naive teenage girl. She is an elder daughter in a destitute rural household, a situation made even graver by her stern father's recent incapacitating car crash. So she has no choice but to agree when vacationing Jay (Riz Ahmed), captivated, invites her to come to one of his wealthy father's (Roshan Seth) hotels, where she can earn a modest, but fair wage and help her parents and siblings. (Jay is introduced speeding through the desert with his horn-dog pals. They are singing along to Kasabian's "Shoot the Runner." Its central lyric: "I'm a king, and she's my queen, bitch." An entertaining, if featherbrained guitar song used here to foreshadow his fatal character flaw.)
Once there, he pursues her day and night. She is at first reluctant to embrace him, but the pair later ease into a sexual relationship, but the initial lines of cultural and economic division are never erased.
A place defined by both the traditions of yesterday and inevitable social advancement, India proves to be the ideal place to set an update of the 19th-century text, focused as it is on double standards, incarcerating gender roles, and the anxious relationship shared by the ancient and the modern.
Winterbottom's clear-eyed and darting digital camera captures environments well, so every sensation of the protagonist's journey from a dusty shanty to a luxurious hotel to a crowded metropolis to, at last, another hotel and then home again can be felt, and the project, to its great credit, never lapses into sentimental cinematic tourism. The sights and sounds just feel authentic.
The director's decision to combine the novel's two significant male characters, Angel (conflicted and sensitive) and Alec (debauched and rogue), into the single character of Jay is at first compelling, but in the end results in a character governed more by the scene-to-scene demands of the plot than any realistic interior navigation. He may be flawed and self-indulgent, but the slave-master sex fiend he becomes in the third act, pounding his weeping lover from behind without a care in the world, is out of character in this context.
The third act in general is what renders the film a mediocre experiment instead of a triumph: the descent into violence and abject, almost mythic misery is indeed in line with the novel for the most part, but much of it plays as abrupt and unearned here.
Another significant flaw is Winterbottom's decision to cast an in-over-her-head Pinto in the lead role. His motive may have been commercial (hit films such as Slumdog Millionaire, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Immortals have turned her into a recognizable international star), but her range is limited, and she is often vacant and adrift in a role requiring vast depths of feeling and longing.