It’s a shame that Michael Winterbottom thought to set his modernized Tess of the d’Urbervilles in India instead of in England, or another Western nation. This isn’t because he doesn’t know how to use South Asia as a setting (he does) or because today’s India doesn’t provide a highly relevant analogy for many of the class issues in Thomas Hardy’s novel (it does). But by shifting Hardy’s story from England 1891 to a developing nation, it lets viewers off the hook.
Nineteenth-century readers of Tess had to confront England’s stiflingly sexist moral hypocrisy, which had yet to be upended by an Industrial Revolution that would kickstart social as well as economic changes. In Winterbottom’s lush vision, the tragically beautiful Tess is now Trishna (Freida Pinto), the oldest daughter in a poor rural family. When a passing-through tourist Jay (Riz Ahmed) spots Trishna at a hotel where she works as a hostess (one of her multiple jobs), she seems to be in luck. Jay’s father (Roshan Seth) happens to own a chain of luxury hotels, and so the son offers Trishna a job at one of them in Jaipur. It means leaving her family, but the salary of 2500 rupees a week will come in handy, particularly after her father is critically injured in an accident that smashes the family truck. Jay doesn’t ask for anything in return, but he plays favorites with her among the other employees, signaling that a romantic entanglement of some sort will have to be her repayment.
While Winterbottom’s script carves several major elements out of the novel—Trishna has only one love interest here, as opposed to two—he does keep true to Hardy’s vision of a beleaguered lower-class woman who is at the mercy of forces beyond her control. When Jay decides he’s fed up with pretending to be an actual hotel manager and wants to get back to the business of being a wastrel youth with more money than sense or compassion, he heads off to Mumbai. Trishna follows along because, well, what else does she have on offer? Of course, being so far from home and living with a dilettante she’s not married to leaves Trishna fantastically vulnerable, socially and financially. She’s also buffeted about by his quicksilver moods—it’s hard to remember another recent film where one is so desirous for the female lead to demand marriage of her boyfriend, regardless of his character or lack thereof.
Swept away by the newness of her life with Jay and the opportunities it represents, Trishna remains isolated: we never think that Jay’s interest in her is anything but the passing fancy of a wealthy brat. Raised in England, Jay is never at home in India, and passes his days smoking pot and reading the kinds of books that would-be enlightened foreigners think they should read to “understand” India. It isn’t long before Jay’s beneficence curdles, as his initial feeling of joy in assisting somebody less fortunate than he turns into despising the sense of responsibility that comes with it.
While we see early on the usual signifiers of the disconnect in their relationship, Trishna never digs into its possible reasons. The actors might have a part in this superficial effect: never the most emotive of performers, Pinto’s stiffness here suggests perpetual discomfort, but not much in the way of what Trishna might want. Ahmed too is quite distant in his performance, quite a long way from the comic mania he displayed in Four Lions.
But as flat as the performances sometimes are, Winterbottom’s filmmaking has rarely been more energetic. His editing (with Mags Arnold) is the quickest sort of work he’s done since The Road to Guantánamo and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind’s beautiful widescreen compositions—from the majestic landscapes of Rajasthan to the heated bustle of Mumbai—make this Winterbottom’s most gorgeous film to date (even outdoing the winterscapes of The Claim). While a strangely truncated conclusion mars the sweep of drama somewhat, elsewhere the film moves with great speed and confidence. For all its faults, Trishna at least tries to grapple forcefully with the inequality of class and the tragedies that result when worlds collide. Love matters, but so does money.