Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which bewails the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Trishna is Michael Winterbottom’s third Hardy adaptation – obviously he availed of a W H Smith’s 3-for-2 deal in his youth.Noting parallels between Hardy’s industrial Victorian England and contemporary, urbanised India, Winterbottom transports this story across centuries and continents, and the film works surprisingly well as a commentary of India’s rapid modernisation.
The film follows the story of Trishna (Freida Pinto), a beautiful young woman from a poor family in rural Rajasthan, who falls in love with the charming but spoiled Jay (Riz Ahmed), a wealthy half-Indian Englishman who has reluctantly assumed the responsibility of running his father’s upscale holiday resorts. Captivated by her beauty, Jay offers Trishna and her impoverished family a lifeline by giving her a job at one of his hotels. A tantalisingly subtle attraction then evolves into a full-blown (albeit secret) relationship, but one that is inevitably doomed.
With much of the action taking place in luxury tourist resorts, Winterbottom touches on the double-edged sword that is the booming tourism industry in India. On the one hand, it provides young Indians – particularly women – with the prospect of a university education, an active social life, a promising career and, ultimately, independence. At the same time, the film highlights how tourism also gives birth to an uncomfortable strand of neo-colonialism, whereby rich Westerners are waited on hand and foot by a subservient Indian workforce, a nuance sure to make many viewers squirm in their seats.
Pinto reflects the infuriatingly disempowered passivity and naivety of her literary counterpart well, unquestioningly yielding to circumstances and fate. The classic trope of the ‘fallen angel’, played out against the backdrop of modern India, where twenty-first century freedoms clash with traditional ways of life, is effective and thought-provoking. The cinematography is stunning and, individually, Pinto and Ahmed put on pretty good performances. Somehow though, together, their lack of chemistry on-screen is bewildering.
That Winterbottom chose to merge the two principal male characters of the novel, Angel Clare, the holier-than-thou smugface love of Tess’s life, and Alec d’Urberville, the triflin’ good for nothin’ type of brother who preys on Tess’s innocence, exploiting and defiling her, into a single figure, is a bold move. It works for about two thirds of the film but, as Jay grows progressively more predatory and destructive, so the story becomes increasingly unconvincing. The climax is strangely at odds with the rest of the film – melodramatic, unpersuasive and needlessly indulgent.
If you’ve read the book you’ll know that the overarching theme is that of the nature of determinism and the futility of free will. I’d urge you all to stick two fingers up to this fatalistic attitude and exercise your own free will by choosing to give this film a miss.