When a story is based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, you know there will be no happy ending. I’m not giving anything away because the Hardy reference is proudly displayed in the opening credits, although there will be cinema-goers who have never read this most miserable of novelists.
This is the third time prolific British director, Michael Winterbottom, has based a film on one of Hardy’s stories, the first being Jude (1996); then The Claim (2000), which restaged The Mayor of Casterbridge as a western. Trishna takes the even more radical step of setting Tess in contemporary India.
Hardy’s 1891 novel, orginally titled, Tess: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, created a scandal because of its portrayal of sexual matters. In India today sex remains a delicate topic, while the age-old problems of class or caste continue to plague a rapidly developing society. I won’t mention the country’s recent slump in the world test cricket rankings.
Hardy’s Tess is a peasant’s daughter, and so is Winterbottom’s Trishna, played by the beautiful Freida Pinto. She lives with her large family in rural Rajasthan, doing manual labour, and working part-time at a nearby hotel.
In the novel Tess’s life is torn between two men, but in Winterbottom’s version the two have been condensed into one, in the shape of Jay (Riz Ahmed), a wealthy Anglo-Indian boy whose father owns luxury hotels. Jay is Trishna’s saviour and her destroyer. Although he initially seems genuine in his affection, his personality remains ambiguous. As the story develops he becomes a mystery to her and to us.
Jay meets Trishna when he is hooning around with his mates on a drive through the countryside. He arranges a job for her at his father’s hotel in Jaipur, which will enable her to send money home to her family. She is the perfect innocent, and he plays the role of benevolent patron.
We know the relationship will not remain on this basis. Jay’s seduction of Trishna is perilously close to rape, and she leaves the hotel that night to return to her family. She has an abortion and has to go live with relatives, where she takes work in a factory. Suddenly Jay turns up to whisk her off to Mumbai.
The period in the big city is the happiest time in the movie, but it comes to an abrupt end. In the last stanza, Jay and Trishna are back in one of his father’s hotels, but she is no longer acknowledged as his girlfriend. He is the boss and she his employee. At the beginning this arrangement seems like a face-saving measure, a necessary masquerade. Soon it becomes a more sinister affair, with Jay as the master and Trishna the slave. The ending is swift and brutal.
There is a good deal of moral complexity in this tale. Jay rescues Trishna from poverty, but at the price of her dignity and self-respect. In Mumbai he allows her to escape her background, but then returns her to an even more lowly, loveless state. We assume that caste plays a big part in Jay’s slow-developing sadism. He is the son of a wealthy businessman, while Trishna will always be a peasant in his eyes. He is an evil Henry Higgins who raises Eliza Dolittle out of the slums only for the benefit of his own appetites.
Like so many of Winterbottom’s features, Trishna has the makings of a great film, but falters with pacing and continuity. The director is at his best in capturing the atmosphere of India, with memorable scenes of arid Rajasthan and the bustle of Mumbai. The obvious comparison is with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, another outsider’s view of this crowded, tempestuous, contradictory nation.
Slumdog, which marked Frieda Pinto’s the acting debut, is a superior production because of a sharper script, a touch of black humour, and the breathless momentum that Boyle brought to the story. Trishna, by contrast, is a stop-start affair. Like the heroine we are seduced and abandoned as the story begins in languorous fashion, drifts in Mumbai, then hastens to a conclusion. The ending feels forced and unconvincing, as if Winterbottom was too impatient to slowly crank up the tension.
This is not the fault of the actors because Pinto has all the painful vulnerability required of her role, while Ahmed plays Jay as a dissociated personality who never seems fully in touch with his own actions. Those small, irritating faults that undermine a very good film are of Winterbottom’s own making. He is a study in directorial ADD who currently has three new projects in pre-production. Of his recent efforts only The Killer Inside Me (2010) managed to avoid his trademark patchiness. This was probably because it was based on a very lean, dark novel by that underrated author, Jim Thompson.
English literature has few better story-tellers than Thomas Hardy, and there is no reason why his tale of a pure woman shabbily treated might not be transposed successfully to another time and place. This tantalising, frustrating film takes us to the brink but ultimately fails to tip us over the edge. We feel Tess’s pain as if it were our own, but Trishna arouses a more detached sense of pity.
Trishna, UK, rated M, 117 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 12, 2012