By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Exiting the movie theater after viewing Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, a simple question occurs: “Why bother?” Because in this primarily unscripted adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 Victorian novel “Tess of the d’Ubervilles,” while the film is set in modern India, with that country’s vibrant hues marinating every frame … the story itself is utterly drained of color. As well as flavor, heat and life.
In the original Victorian novel, Hardy examines a young rural woman through the prism of a restrictive class-based society. Though Tess is a good-hearted girl who tries to do right by her family, she’s victimized by the self-righteous rigidity of English social morality of the 1870s. Cut to modern India, where the Tess character, renamed Trishna (Freida Pinto) has had some schooling, is multi-lingual but still bows to the demands of her dominating father. Unlike the novel in which the heroine causes an accident, here it’s Trishna’s father who falls asleep while driving (a jeep rather than a horse-driven wagon). Riding in the back of the jeep, Trishna sustains a broken arm – but the severity of the father’s injuries are such that he can no longer work. And it’s up to eldest daughter Trishna to support the family.
Cue the rich, handsome stranger (Riz Ahmed’s Jay) that Trishna had recently met, providing financial rescue by offering her well-paid employment at one of his father’s upscale tourist hotels. Jay is obviously enamored of her and after some plot contrivances, the couple winds up sharing a love nest in Mumbai. When she confesses that her parents had forced her to have an abortion after he impregnated her – the first time he seduced her – his idealized romantic feelings change. He abandons her only to eventually take her back, putting her to work at another hotel as a housekeeper/waitress by day, and as his personal sex slave by night or, rather, anytime he wants.
This is a maddening reinvention of the Hardy story (and the ensuing 1979 Roman Polanski film Tess) in which the heroine is caught between two lovers, good Angel and demonic Alec. Here, Winterbottom blends the two male characters into one, without allowing much in terms of exploration … and so the initially kind lover Jay, encouraging Trishna to take hotel management classes, enthused by her dancing, devolves into a callous sadist.
Worse, the heroine is even more poorly realized. A proponent of education (pushing for her younger siblings to attend school), she is victimized early and often. First, by her father, who never takes responsibility for the accident (and thereby changing her fate); followed by her lover Jay, who punishes her for getting pregnant; and ultimately by Jay again, who comes to view her as an unworthy member of the lower class, sentencing her to a life of sexual enslavement. But along the way, we see Trishna thriving at hotel management school, rooming with city girls her own age, thriving at dance class, being approached to perhaps dance and/or act in Bollywood movies; in short, nimbly adapting to the metropolitan whirl of Mumbai. Which belies filmmaker Winterbottom’s assessment of the heroine, stating her “tragedy is that she has one foot in the fixed, old rural world, and one foot in the new, mobile, urban world.” How is it that this lovely young woman, who is smart and quick, who could easily find employment (or a new lover with an open wallet) is reduced to a silent passive victim, unable to act?
Rather than a strong script, Winterbottom relies on a hyperactive camera, as if he were trying to recreate an updated dramatic classic by way of a music video. We get frequent shots of Trishna carrying trays of food; of multiple modes of vehicular travel; of buildings, landscapes, and Bollywood dancers. Might we also deserve some scripted scenes? Dialogue other than snatches of an improvisatory “Hi; how are you; fine; you?”
Though Pinto is a beautiful woman, so, too, is the Ingrid Bergman-esque Nastassia Kinski, the titular star of Polanski’s Tess, who is far more adept at conveying emotion than the frequently vague Ms. Pinto. Trishna‘s leading man Ahmed similarly appears impenetrable, managing to keep whatever depth he may have gleaned about the character to himself.
For those who maintain that movies are primarily a visual medium, Trishna‘s profound vapidity proves the exact opposite. This film cries out for a writer who might have succeeded in depicting an engaging story that is sorely missing from the screen. If anyone actually sees Tess/Trishna wandering around India, unable to find her way on the tortured path between country and city, between novel and film .. give her our regards.
Rating on a scale of 5 expressions of “mum-bai’s the word”: 2
Release date: July 20, 2012 (previously ltd. opening in NY/LA: July 13)
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Based on the novel “Tess of the d’Ubervilles” by: Thomas Hardy
Cast: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Roshan Seth
Running Time: 117 minutes