Hardy's 'Tess' heads east, loses its way

Posted: July 27, 2012

What a fabulous idea, to transpose Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy's tale of manners and morals in 19th-century England - to modern-day India. The trip from Hardy's fictional Wessex to Rajasthan and Mumbai - where class mobility, tradition, and globalization clash with dizzying vividness - presents a tantalizing opportunity to infuse the classic with new verve, color, and relevance.

In the case of Trishna, the enterprise is even more promising because it has been written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, one of the most protean and inventive filmmakers working today (and one who knows his way around Hardy, having adapted The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure). That Winterbottom has delivered a dud makes Trishna all the more disappointing, a rare unsatisfying swerve in an otherwise reliably provocative career.

It's not that Winterbottom hasn't hit on a winning concept. His Trishna (Freida Pinto) helps support her family by dancing at a resort, which is where Jay (Riz Ahmed), son of a wealthy real-estate developer, meets her. As a compression of the two main male characters from Hardy's novel, Jay possesses both the beneficent and malign forces with which Trishna is forced to contend: Beguiled by her grace and beauty, Jay at first seeks to help Trishna by giving her a job at one of his father's hotels; after a move to Mumbai and a series of misunderstandings, what were gestures of caring and support take on a considerably harsher edge.

With a few nips, tucks, and adjustments, Hardy's story of a young woman buffeted by social and economic circumstances migrates easily to 21st-century India, where class and cultural boundaries seem to shift by the second. With his signature fluid filming style, Winterbottom captures both poetry and poverty with equal enthusiasm. But Trishna begins to feel unaccountably inert, its tragic denouement rote instead of wrenching. One of the film's biggest liabilities is Pinto, who first came to international attention in the 2008 hit Slumdog Millionaire. Undeniably lovely, Pinto doesn't possess the expressive range or depth to tackle a role that calls for both (her acting chops proved just as shaky in 2010's Miral).

Without a strong leading lady, Ahmed seems just as at sea with his emotionally conflicted character. In fact, the brightest spot in Trishna is the cameo appearance of veteran Indian actor Roshan Seth, who plays Jay's father with his usual gentle brio. If the rest of Trishna had his subtlety and flair, it would be a memorable literary revamp, rather than a well-meaning but forgettable good try.

Trishna *1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Michael Winterbottom. With Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Anurag Kashyap. In English and Hindi with subtitles.

Distributed by IFC Films

Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.

Parents' guide: R (sexuality, some violence, drug use, and profanity)

Playing at: Ritz Five

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