PROLIFIC, daring and inventive, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom likes to reimagine the works of Thomas Hardy in the way others do with Shakespeare. Having adapted JUDE THE OBSCURE (with 1996’s JUDE) and THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE (with 2000’s THE CLAIM), he now rips TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES out of its 19th-century Dorchester setting, again simplifying the narrative’s complexities, before replanting it in the heat and bustle of contemporary India.
Tess has become Trishna (Pinto): a bright, attractive peasant girl, wooed from her Rajasthan village by wealth and privilege. Her suitor, a restless hotel heir named Jay Singh (Ahmed), is a blend of Hardy originals Angel Clare and Alex d’Urberville. Distinct parallels between Victorian-era England and modern-day India remain.
Winterbottom’s film spends much of its time focused on his two leads. Jay abandons his English friends to say on in India, to set up a Raj-style hotel chain for his wealthy father (MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE’s Seth), but remains uncommitted. His desire for Trishna eventually sees them relocate from the country to Mumbai, swapping the trappings of five-star luxury for more modest inner-city digs. Bollywood is a magnet for them both, but neither are able to commit to this, either. Jay misses England, it seems, Trishna her family and the comfort of the village.
Despite some typical visual flair, and an affecting soundtrack to boot, TRISHNA lacks the emotional punch of Hardy’s original novel. This may be due to a lack of chemistry between the two leads, rather than Winterbottom’s imaginative reading of the material. Certainly, while Pinto and Ahmed have adequately proved themselves on screen elsewhere (the former in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, the latter in FOUR LIONS and Winterbottom’s THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO), here – together – they feel awkward, even contrived, on screen.
Although still promoting it on the festival circuit (it premiered last year in Toronto), Winterbottom has, perhaps wisely, moved on to other projects. Typically, he has up to five new features currently in various stage of development, the next being THE KING OF SOHO: a period yarn starring Winterbottom regular Steve Coogan (THE TRIP, TRISHTRAM SHANDY, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE) as London porn turned property supremo Paul Raymond. And while his substantial output – 18 features in 20 years – has seen an inevitable blend of hits (THE KILLER INSIDE ME) and misses (NINE SONGS), he remains a potent creative force in film. TRISHNA, though, is more the latter.
Critical Rating: 5/10.
TRISHNA is in cinemas from Thursday.
First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age.