Even if you have never bathed a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles in your tears, you may wonder what the British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom was after with Trishna, his arid take on the novel.
Set in contemporary India, it stars the Indian actress Freida Pinto as the title character, a poor country lass who falls for a rake, Jay (Riz Ahmed). Jay pursues Trishna and then abandons her, literally and emotionally, only to return to her arms amid a great deal of melodramatic busyness, pulsing colors, churning dust and very little heat.
When Jay first sees Trishna, she’s working in a resort in her hometown in Rajasthan, in northwest
India, and he’s bumming around with friends, getting stoned and sharing blunts. The son of a wealthy speculator (Roshan Seth), Jay chases her, but traditional Trishna keeps him demurely at bay. When an accident sidelines her father, she steps in as the family provider and accepts Jay’s offer of a job at one of his father’s hotels. Trishna and Jay draw close, but after a murky encounter involving either rape or a fraught seduction, she returns home. Jay then follows Trishna and asks her to live with him in Mumbai, and she shyly smiles yes, setting her on her fateful course.
It’s a path that owes something to Hardy, a bit to Bollywood and too much to Winterbottom’s unfortunate decisions. Trishna is attractive if not memorably so, filled with pretty young people and location shooting that borders on tourist-board friendly. Pinto, best known for Slumdog Millionaire, is one of its loveliest attractions, but she and her director haven’t been
able to give Trishna a pulse. It’s hard to pinpoint whether Winterbottom, Pinto or some combination of the two couldn’t make Trishna come alive. The wild over-editing only becomes more frenetic as the drama thickens — as if to imply depths of feeling not visible in the acting or mise-en-scène — which suggests he was trying to cut around the performance.
Even a seasoned actress might have had trouble animating a character as thinly conceptualised as
Trishna, who, despite the costume and location changes, her smiles and unpersuasive moans of pleasure, begins and ends as a victim. A victim who, because Winterbottom focuses on her context and can’t dig into her consciousness, much less move between them, remains at an emotional remove. If you haven’t read Hardy’s novel, it may be hard to grasp what Jay sees in her beyond the crudely obvious. If you have read the book, in which Tess is thrillingly human — passive and active, marble and flesh — you can only rue Winterbottom’s reading of Tess that underscores its determinism and turns its heroine into a decorative vessel for that fatalism.
This is the third time that Winterbottom has tackled Hardy for the big screen, following Jude, a period adaptation of Jude the Obscure, and The Claim, which loosely transposed The Mayor of Casterbridge to 1860s California. Winterbottom has said he first read Jude the Obscure when he was a teenager and re-read it several more times. He grew up to become a mercurial filmmaker who changes his visual style as often as he does subjects and whose films, even the non-literary ones, share a pessimism that may be traceable to reading too much Hardy at a tender age. Even The Trip, Winterbottom’s funny gastronomic excursion through the Lake District of England with the comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, is touched by gloominess unrelated to the weather.
Life is suffering, as the Buddha said (including in Hardy’s emotionally grinding novels), but it’s more complex and contradictory than the ginned-up realism Winterbottom delivers here. Given this, it’s curious that he called his heroine Trishna, which is the second of the four noble truths, the foundation of Buddhist thought. Life is suffering is the first noble truth; the second is that suffering is caused by thirst (trishna) — craving, desire, attachment. Craving causes suffering, but ideally also leads to enlightenment. This paradox brings to mind that even brutal art has its moment of transcendence.
However bleak, a novel like Tess is its own slice of nirvana because of the magnificence of its ideas, the glory of its writing and its glimmers of hope, which have no equal in Trishna.