Michael Winterbottom’s third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel (after “Jude” and “The Claim”) has one of the most renowned tearjerkers in literary history (“Tess of the D’Urbervilles”) as its source material, and somehow manages still to leave a viewer more perplexed than sad, sorry, or tearful.
It is the age old story: Rich boy meets poor girl. They fall in love (or some approximation thereof.) Things don’t go quite as planned and, in the end, everyone has a price to pay. At which point, presumably, one is supposed to “pass the kleenex right this way” (and God knows this reviewer was prepared to do so), but Winterbottom makes a few crucial missteps that leave this story hanging in mid-air.
Unlike his previous Hardy excursions, which remained close (enough) to the time and space continuum in which the novels were told, Winterbottom decides to transport Trishna to modern day India, a decision both ballsy and misguided. The original story depends heavily on a socio-economic structure of 19th century England where gentry was the gentry, and the peasants were peasants, all cloaked in a forever foggy gloom that only British countryside can offer. In fact, without that context, it is hard to imagine the storyline working, that is how imperative of a narrative aid it is.
Winterbottom presumably chose the very colorful, Bollywood-y India as his setting because even in 2012, the caste system is still in place on the outskirts of big cities, and people still live as traditionally as they did in the 1800s, one presumes. Still, it is a hard to sell a woman with zero options in this day and age. A (working) woman entirely dependent on a man, in this day and age. A woman who has no problem leaving any number of things any number of times in the early stages of the movie, feeling this trapped, in this day and age. A woman who then, upon being forced to do the unthinkable (I am not spoiling anything here: we are, after all, talking about one of the most famous novels around and the storyline is no secret-ed) because she felt so trapped, leaves, just like that, leaving us to wonder, “Why didn’t she just leave before it came to this? WHY?”
And that is the crucial issue here: the parts where you’re supposed to empathize, you just keep finding yourself asking “WHY?” in all caps, over and over again.
But before that point, the movie is more successful. Winterbottom casts the always lovely Freida Pinto as the titular character, and she imbues Trishna with a quiet sorrow (if not quite the pulse and vibrant inner life you’d want her to have.) She’s a girl-becoming-a-woman who was never truly happy. When she meets Jay (Riz Ahmed) at the resort where she sometimes works, her beauty and composure and certain air of mystery captivate him.
Their process of getting to know each other – the little steps one takes in the process of seduction and the ultimate and inevitable surrender – are probably the most engaging portion of the film. After that, too much depends on simply getting from point A to point B in Hardy’s storyline for Winterbottom to fully develop their characters, and allow us to see why they grew into the people we see as the end draws near. You’re left with a movie that is, quite simply, adequate.
Which is a shame, because with a film of this kind of pedigree (the director, actors, AND the source material are all quite fantastic in their other incarnations) you expect, well, more. A lot more.