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