Even a quick skim of Michael Winterbottom’s filmography is enough to establish his wide-ranging eclecticism, though lately each new project seems increasingly like the puzzling out of a dare he made to himself. Trishna transposes Thomas Hardy’s 19th-century novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern-day India, and while that central conceit sounds like arch cleverness for cleverness’ sake, the execution works surprisingly well.
In India, Winterbottom finds a society that still echoes the clash of preserved tradition and rapid-onset modernity that set the stage for Hardy’s original tale. And while the novel’s “fallen woman” narrative initially seems quaint for the 21st century, Winterbottom finds modern-day parallels in the stories told and retold in Bollywood movies, which his lower-caste characters watch incessantly and on which his wealthy characters strive to cash in. The director obviously relishes the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of the country’s booming film industry, and while the gulf between a milkmaid and a Bollywood dancer may seem immense, Winterbottom and Hardy share a fascination with the details of work. By placing the story in India, he sites in a place that maintains a native lower class that has largely disappeared in the west, replaced by immigrant workers. His restless, observant camera follows Trishna from rural farms in her native Rajasthan to lavish upscale hotels in Mumbai, dwelling on tiny details like an old woman’s foot as she straddles a piece of farm machinery.
Winterbottom’s adaptation combines Hardy’s two male characters, the caddish Alec and the moralistic Angel, into the (significantly) British-born hotel heir Jay, and Riz Ahmed manages to find some balance in the resulting contradictions. The change ultimately seems like a shortcut to dispensing with more of the storytelling, which feels like a necessary peg on which to hang the filmmaker’s impressions of life in India. Those priorities ultimately leave a void in the shape of Freida Pinto’s central performance — the Slumdog Millionaire actress is a blank. But where Tess’ passivity hid a naïve but tortured inner life, Pinto’s empty stare reveals none at all.