Michael Gillespie reviews Michael Winterbottom's re-imagining of a literary classic.
Updating classic literary texts has usually been the domain of high school set Hollywood productions filled with hot rising stars and veteran character actors who deserve better. Trishna is an altogether different beast: a vibrant, raw and thoroughly modern take on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The UK has generally stuck to a conservative template when adapting any material that affords ample opportunity for prancing around in bonnets and corsetry. Winterbottom of course tried to get some grit under the fingernails with his first Hardy adaptation, Jude, and his far looser transposing of The Mayor of Casterbridge to the Gold Rush era California, but with Trishna, he has made his most satisfying Hardy film yet, and while not entirely successful, it joins Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights in pumping some blood back into the heritage drama’s veins.
What Trishna has in common most with the Arnold film is its superior approximation of the themes explored in the source material; in this instance, the conflict between tradition and modernity; the rural and the urban; and the very visible divide in social classes. Setting the story in contemporary India, Winterbottom finds the perfect location for exploring these ideas, as well as issues of womanhood and independence.
As you would expect, the director’s punkish, verite approach to proceedings lends the film the required immediacy and verisimilitude. He also, as with the likes of In This World and A Mighty Heart, draws believable performances from non-professionals in “real” situations and locations. It might be fair to say that here’s something remarkably un-British about Winterbottom, his sensibilities far closer to the likes of Kiarostami, the Makhmalbafs and the great Satyajit Ray and Werner Herzog (an acknowledged influence).
Freida Pinto is Trishna, our modern Tess, and is thankfully every bit as good as the hype around her suggests. She is a genuine movie star and ideally cast: sexy, vulnerable, with a magnetic, silent presence. Riz Ahmed is also good value, his supposed chivalry and moneyed ambivalence suggesting darker impulses brewing. Many have noted the film’s amalgamation of the novel’s two male “leads” as its failing, but this is not the case; in fact this new duality of one character is extremely effective, especially in the film’s exploration of gender politics in modern India.
If the film has problems, they lie more in Winterbottom’s aforementioned looseness: occasionally one is left with the impression that his limited time and resources mean that he will often settle for less and cover his tracks with music (Shigeru Umebayashi recalling the sensual anguish of his Wong Kar Wai scores) or additional coverage of the locales. It may never quite get under the skin of its characters (Tess/Trishna, as Winterbottom has noted, is a passive, opaque woman to begin with) but it offers fascinating insights into an exciting culture (the Bollywood behind the scenes stuff is riveting) and proves that literary adaptations don’t always have to be so…well…dull.