Director Michael Winterbottom takes a hard left from the comedy of The Trip into serious drama (and melodrama) with Trishna, his third Thomas Hardy adaptation. After the excellent Jude, based on Jude the Obscure, this updating of Tess of the d’Urbervilles to contemporary India is a disappointment.
We first get a glimpse of Trishna (Freida Pinto) at a temple she’s visiting with her sister. Jay (Riz Ahmed) spots her there while sightseeing with friends, and then later bumps into her later at the hotel where she works. He’s immediately smitten and does his best to work his way intogain her good graces.
Even those unfamiliar with Thomas Hardy will peg Jay as a scoundrel. He seems rather benevolent at first, offering Trishna a well-paying job at a hotel he runs for his father, and she accepts it; her father has been injured in a car accident and can’t work. He sends her to hotel management classes, and of course they fall in love, inasmuch as they can.
Jay, for some reason, has complete power over Trishna, which is obvious from the moment they meet. There’s no dramatic tension whatsoever, just a small, mounting sense of anticipation for the moment the story takes its darkest turn, which it eventually does.
It doesn’t help that Pinto plays a passive characters so passively that she seems like the most boring person alive. Trishna, quite literally, says yes to everything, whether it’s to first sleep with Jay after he rescues her from a botched assault or to move with him to Bombay (interesting: he calls it Bombay and she calls it Mumbai) or to work for him at a second hotel when his family’s circumstances dictate he must take over their businesses.
Little is made of the tension between contemporary India and traditional India. While living in Bombay, Trishna happily starts taking dancing classes and almost becomes a member of dancing troupe until the screenplay takes that away from her. There’s a germ of an idea there, but it evaporates before it’s explored.
At home, Trishna’s father is quietly scornful of her mild desire to live a modern life, but the family needs the money she earns at the hotel after his accident so he decides to live as a hypocrite. Something could be made of that, too, but nothing is.
The push and pull of social mores worked well in Jude, which Winterbottom wisely filmed as a period piece. Trishna’s contemporary setting and our heroine’s single-minded passivity begs the question: Why the update? Wouldn’t she have behaved the same way no matter what or when her circumstances?
Jay becomes a complete cad as the story creaks toward its inevitable conclusion and Trishna is finally compelled to make some decisions. They’re possibly the two worst decisions available to her and they don’t quite ring true, but this Hardy story can only go in one direction, even when it’s updated to the 21st century.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
With Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed