For the third time, British director Michael Winterbottom once again attempts to breathe cinematic life into the works of 19th century author Thomas Hardy, one of the countries most beloved writers. Having previously adapted Jude The Obscure (given the cut-down title, Jude, in 1996) and transported The Mayor of Casterbridge to 19th century America in 2000 with The Claim, he now turns to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, transplanted to modern day Indian in the form of Trishna (2011).
Starring Riz Ahmed and Freida Pinto, the story now begins in a small village in Rajasthan. Trishna (our modern day Tess, played by Pinto) lives with her family quietly living out her life helping where she can. One fateful night she meets the son of a wealthy property developer, Jay (Ahmed), who, love-struck by the intelligence and beauty of Trishna, offers her a job in his father’s hotel. Leaving her family behind, Jay whisks her away to the bustling cities of Jaipur and Mumbai with the promise of a new and exciting life. However, as anyone who is familiar with Hardy’s novel knows, this is to be a doomed and tragic relationship.
Winterbottom’s adaptation is not without charm, and he has very cleverly taken some of the book’s most iconic moments and given them a contemporary twist. The traditional caste system of India also allows for a smooth transition of the novels themes that explore 19th century England’s social and moral conventions. A pleasant modern flourish is also the incorporation scenes relating to the Bollywood film industry, within which Trishna works briefly as a dancer.
Some of Winterbottom’s choices are more puzzling. He has stripped down much of Hardy’s novel to the extent of combining two characters (Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare) to create Ahmed’s spoilt rich kid Jay. The result is that Ahmed’s is overloaded with what he must convey resulting in a very fractured and unconvincing performance. This is made all the more problematic by Ahmed and Pinto’s weak and emotionally stilted on-screen relationship, which fails to convince due to the stunted dialogue. Most problematic of all is the invasive and distracting soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi and Amit Trivedi that repeatedly pulls attention away from the action.
Multiple problems aside, Trishna’s greatest strength is in the way Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind have beautifully captured the backdrop of urban and rural Indian, with each scene bursting with life and colour. The visual beauty of the film is undeniable and there are moments when Winterbottom has made the literary source work cinematically. However, when the credits begin role the overall feel of the film is one of style-over-substance, lacking any of the complexity of Hardy’s best-loved work.