Ever since the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Freida Pinto has struggled to establish herself in roles of a similar calibre. While her talent and commitment are plain to see, she has very often ended up as the best thing in a bad production, such as Julian Schnabel's heavily flawed Miral. She finds herself in broadly the same position with Trishna, Michael Winterbottom's third attempt at adapting Thomas Hardy which fulfils on far too little of its great potential.
Winterbottom is no stranger to Hardy's work, but his attempts at adaptation vary greatly. His take on Jude the Obscure, Hardy's last and most controversial novel, was handsomely mounted but often boring, while The Claim (based loosely on The Mayor of Casterbridge) is immensely entertaining. Winterbottom got the idea for this take on Tess of the D'Urbervilles while shooting on location for his neo-noir Code 46. He was struck by the similarities between 21st-century India and 19th-century Wessex, and thought that such an unusual setting would bring something new to the story.
To be fair to Winterbottom, Trishna does get the beats of Hardy's story down pat. The opening sets up the difference in background between our two main characters and fated lovers. Trishna's humble existence, waiting tables, helping her father and living in the countryside with her family, is contrasted with Jay's affluent lifestyle in the relatively care-free and modern city. We are unsure of how much to trust Jay, wondering whether he is helping Trishna because he loves her or because he wants to sleep with her. His visits to temples and other ancient sites are intercut with him partying with mates or joyriding around in a jeep.
After Trishna finds work with Jay's father, she opens up to Jay bit by bit and becomes accepted by her new friends in the city. Jay is there to protect her, but he subsequently takes advantage of her, albeit not quite as literally as in Hardy's novel. Trishna spends the remainder of the film to-ing and fro-ing between her two lives, increasingly burdened by guilt, fear and shame. Eventually there is only one course of action she can take, though again this is altered slightly from Hardy's story.
Having got all the key plot points in place, Trishna makes an attempt to justify setting the story in India. And this, unfortunately, is where things start to come unstuck. The location seems to make sense in relation to the characters, and there are certain parallels that fans of the novel will pick up on of their own accord. But Winterbottom never adds anything weighty into the mix to justify the setting on top of the film being a decent transliteration.
One of the main themes of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is that of the countryside being exploited and eventually eclipsed by the vast progress and speed of city life. Hardy sought to demonstrate how industrial production and the growth in population were destroying traditional farming communities; this is usually conveyed through the breakdown of a family or, as in Far From The Madding Crowd, the insecurities of a female protagonist. Tess is a character caught between two worlds, being too gifted and ambitious for a life of simple rural pleasures, but too helpless and naïve to make her way in the city. Her actions speak of panic and despair, and her death represents the triumph of urban Victorian society over the agrarian ones that preceded it.
With this in mind, it makes perfect sense to set a new adaptation in India. The country is undergoing a similar wave of rapid industrial and technological progress that made England once the fastest-developing nation on Earth. The gulf between rich and poor is widening, with the wealth generated in the rapidly expanding cities barely extending into the more traditional countryside. And despite the legacy of the British Empire in terms of bureaucratic and democratic governance, its infrastructure is still developing and taking shape.
Had Winterbottom applied himself, he could really have entrenched Hardy's story in India. He could have used the central romance to bring out the parallels between Hardy's Wessex and modern-day India, throwing in ideas about the erosion or persistence of caste, gender expectations for women and the role of religion among the young and upwardly mobile. But instead the story just sits awkwardly in India, like a Shakespeare play that has been set somewhere unusual as a gimmick. The parallels are there superficially, but Winterbottom either isn't able or isn't willing to let us get beneath the surface.
The next big problem, relating to this, is the editing. When Roman Polanski made his version of Tess in the late-1970s, he very consciously took his time, using the slow pace to convey the calmness of country life into which the destructive forces intrude. Winterbottom does the complete opposite, frequently jumping locations and cutting in the middle of scenes in an obvious bid to keep the plot moving. Rapid editing is not a bad thing in and of itself, and in certain cases like Moulin Rouge! it can be effective. But in this instance it is incredibly distracting and demonstrates a lack of faith in either the story or the director's chosen means of telling it.
Then we come on to the central performance. Polanski also benefitted in this department, getting Natassja Kinski at the very peak of her powers in what is to many the definitive portrayal of Tess. Freida Pinto is no Natassja Kinski - that's a hard act for anyone to follow - but she's also rather distant for a lot of the running time. She delivers her lines capably but her performance is all on one note until the final act. Riz Ahmed is the more charismatic and intriguing of the leads, successfully conveying a man standing on shaky ground, with plenty of insecurities, always in two minds and capable of great and jealous anger.
Pinto's performance is indicative of the overall tone. Even though it's half the length of Polanski's Tess, at 108 minutes the film feels flat and drags quite badly. With the exception of the climactic last ten minutes, the film feels like it is constantly going round in circles, with the characters not developing and the different events that occur seeming inconsequential. The central romance becomes like an episodic soap opera, a feeling exacerbated by the use of montage when Trishna is working in the hotels.
The main feeling that Trishna produces is frustration, because there are interesting ideas lurking in its make-up that would make for engaging drama. There are a number of moments involving Trishna herself which are genuinely tense or uncomfortable - being confronted in the street by four men only to be rescued by Jay, being given an abortion after Jay goes AWOL, or her eventual death by the same blade with which she murdered her lover. But while these moments are powerful in isolation, they all feel like isolated glimpses of what could and should be, bursting through a needlessly frothy and melodramatic surface.
Trishna is neither more nor less than an admirable failure. Relocating Hardy's story to India makes a great deal of sense, and the basic plot and character arcs are all capably replicated. But it ultimately fulfils on far too little of its potential, settling for superficial parallels over true substance and being mechanically unsound. Winterbottom has better films in him, and makes them quick enough to put this disappointment swiftly behind him. As for Freida Pinto, the search for a more deserving vehicle goes on.