Michael Winterbottom is a director that cranks out so many movies in such a diverse array of genres, that you’ve got to expect a few of them to come up short. He’s made 13 films since 2000 and while that includes some beloved titles like 24 Hour Party People and In This World, he also made some genuine drivel like 9 Songs and The Killer Inside Me. His latest effort Trishna falls somewhere in between the two extremes. A loose re-imagining of Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The D’Urbervilles shoved into modern day India, the film has individual moments and images that showcase Winterbottom at his best, but overall it has the rushed and half baked qualities of his most tossed off efforts. It’s still an intriguing little movie, just an undeniable disappointment given the project’s potential and the brief moments that fulfill it.
The film opens with the most radical departure from the novel. Instead of opening on his Tess stand-in, the film starts with Riz Ahmed (Four Lions and Winterbottom’s own Road To Guantanamo) Jay, a lazy privileged boy visiting India as an extended party with some friends. Riz’s father is a wealthy hotel mogul who has been raised in Britain and now returns to India where his family can set him up with a cushy job. Jay spots the titular Trishna (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) performing a dance at a flea-bin tourist trap with his friends and returns to find her after they leave. He offers Trishna a job at a hotel he’s running, which she accepts to support her starving rural family. Gradually the pair fall in love during their time at the hotel through secret meetings and Jay unexpectedly paying for the girl to take hotel management courses. Trishna freaks out and flees home, but Jay is undeterred. He takes her away again, this time in Mumbai where he plays at being a movie producer and she plays at being a Bollywood dancer while they both pretend to be a happy couple. Then Jay is called to London when his father takes ill, doesn’t speak to Trishna for months, and when he finally returns they must move back to the country so he can run a hotel again. At this point Jay tries to revert back to their initially servant/master/secret lover dynamic from before, a process that becomes increasingly harsh and degrading.
Moving the concept and themes of Hardy’s novel to contemporary India was an interesting choice. There’s a level of accepted misogyny and intense class divide in the culture that suits the material well. Winterbottom also seems enamored with the new setting, lingering on evocative places and faces that have nothing to do with the central narrative. The problem is that while conceptually the mix of Hardy and India should work, it never quite gels. This is the director’s third crack at finding a contemporary setting Hardy’s work, so you’d think he would know how to pull this trick off by now. Unfortunately it seems like the film is split between sequences where he peeks into contemporary Indian culture and scenes that honor the original story with the two elements awkwardly clashing together. Maybe the production was rushed before the screenplay was finished or maybe Winterbottom got so enamored with his locations that he lost track of the narrative. Regardless, what we’re left with is a film that looks gorgeous and seems to set an interesting story within those pretty pictures without ever bringing both threads together.
The film also gets let down by the two lead actors. Freida Pinto is an absolutely beautiful screen presence who knows how to charm the camera; however, Trishna reveals that she’s not that much of an actress. She’s never glaringly bad, spitting out awkward line readings or making radically misjudged choices. She’s simply rather wooden and hollow. Part of that is in the nature of her subservient character, but particularly towards the end of the film when we are supposed to connect with the character’s inner turmoil, Freida doesn’t seem capable of conveying much as an actress beyond the surface. Riz Ahmed fares better and has already proven to be a talent actor. The problem with Riz is that his role makes a sudden shift into a psychologically abusive character in the last third that rings completely false. The aspects of his character leading to that shift are never properly established, so it feels like an award transition from lover to villain rather than a terrifying inner truth bubbling to the surface. Most of that is a failing of the screenplay, but Riz certainly seems lost when asked to dive into evil to make things worse.
Now, all that said Trishna is hardly a disaster. Despite the muddled concept and miscasting, there’s still an interesting Indian variation on Tess hidden amongst the problems that is intriguing. This is just one of those frustrating movies that is so close to working you can see the intentions beneath the mistakes. A noble failure, I suppose. The kind that only comes when filmmakers are willing to risk embarrassment. Winterbottom doesn’t tend to sit around licking his wounds after those too much though, so we should hopefully expect an awesome make-up comedy with Steve Coogan soon. It seems like he enjoys giving those to audiences as an apology for the failures, so that’s a nice silver lining for the troubling Trishna at the very least.