[This film was originally posted as part of our London Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with its wider theatrical release.]
There haven’t been many notable British films at this year’s London Film Festival, but Trishna was one I was particularly looking forward to. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles is one of my three favourite novels and shifting Hardy’s narrative to modern day India sounded like a clever way of updating the story in a country where ideas of class and religious morality still hold considerable sway. Though not always successful in his endeavours, Michael Winterbottom is rarely anything if not an interesting director who makes brave choices, so Trishna seemed to have everything in place to be something of an underdog LFF favourite.
Reaction to the film has proven divisive: I have read it described by audiences and critics alike as both a disaster and masterpiece, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There’s a terrific story to be told here, but no-one involved seem entirely sure of what it is. The film looks gorgeous – how could it not, with Frieda Pinto in the starring role? – and is often moving, but is neither faithful enough to Hardy to be a worthy adaptation, nor confident enough in the changes it makes to the original text.
Where Hardy’s novel focused on the fall of a pure woman betrayed by the people and hypocritical morals of her time, Winterbottom’s film is a broader look at the difficulties of being a woman growing up in a society divided between old morals and new freedoms, and of the subsequent struggles with social mobility. The themes capture much of Hardy’s original intentions in Tess, but are a little too wide-ranging to be as emotionally compelling as the source novel. Tess toiled and struggled in the hope that the people she put her faith in would eventually relieve her agony, making every fresh horror she suffered a new indictment of a society that had no place for women seen as ‘impure’, no matter how good their souls. Trishna, on the other hand, is at least somewhat complicit in her own downfall, making a conscious decision which she knows goes against the morals of her community. She certainly doesn’t deserve the consequences, but that moment of surrender stains her position as the woman pure of heart, thus reducing the weight of the social critique.
Trishna’s more active nature, compared to the almost completely reactive Tess, will no doubt please feminists who find Hardy’s character an offensive disgrace – although Tess’ devotion to her principles makes her more strong-willed than she is often given credit for – but misses the point of why Hardy made his character the way he did. She was a woman forced into a certain role, but punished for deviating from it because of events she had no control over. Trishna may be slightly more modern in that she chooses to take a leap of faith which ends up going badly wrong, but the changes feel like they miss Hardy’s point without replacing it with anything new. Fusing Tess’ two suitors into a single character, rich hotelier’s son Jay, also leads to complications, especially with shifts in personality that are never properly justified. In particular, his treatment of Trishna which finally tips her over into taking decisive action comes completely out of the blue and robs the ending of the final, heartbreaking twist of the knife which Hardy inflicted on his tragic heroine.
The two actors in the key roles, Pinto as Trishna and Riz Ahmed as Jay, suffer a little from the uncertainty of the material they are playing. Ahmed manages to blend his character’s charismatic and conniving natures into a reasonably believeable character, but struggles when he has to emphasize either over the other. When he’s good, he seems almost too good – nary a hint of the control freak supposedly lurking beneath the surface. When he’s bad, he is not given enough to work with to justify such lurching shifts in behaviour. Hardy’s Angel and Alec represented two of very different sins, which don’t quite combine comfortably into one character.
As Trishna, Pinto is radiant and her quiet manner earns a great deal of sympathy, but she is almost too beautiful for the environment she is supposed to come from. Her complexion is too perfect, her hands too unscarred, to sell that she is a girl who has had to live in poverty and do a great deal of manual work. Even if she does make more direct decisions than Tess, her Trishna is noticeably less forceful in her strength of will. Tess lived by a certain code she believed in and was let down by other people’s failings, but Trisha continually makes sacrifices in the hope that others will justify them. In that respect, she’s actually a less strong character than the Hardy girl. As beautiful as Pinto is, Winterbottom never manages to capture her in the same adoring light as Hardy wrote Tess: he had clearly fallen in love with his character, meaning the reader did too. Winterbottom’s camera never makes that same connection.
On the plus side, Winterbottom has a marvellous time capturing the colours and sights of an evolving India. Like Slumdog Millionaire, a natural point of comparison for this film given the shared location and romantic plot, the film looks at India as a country divided between its rapidly developing urban areas and impoverished rural landscapes. It is one of the more effective reflections of suggested ideas about class and evolving moralities, and despite one brief Bollywood number, generally avoids the clichés. In fact, Winterbottom captures a much more vivid sense of the nation’s history than Danny Boyle did, touring temples and crumbling old hotels without staring in the manner of a tourist. The score, by Shigeru Umebayashi, sounds appropriate to the culture and sufficiently melancholy for the feel of the story, but again holds back from anything overfamiliar.
Though it has problems as an adaptation of Hardy, as a story in its own right Trisha still hits many affecting emotional cues, not least in the slow degradation of a passionate young love turning sour by social imbalance. Winterbottom may not make us as enamoured of his heroine as Hardy did, but we feel for her when the pressures start mounting. Only the ending really fails to connect, because Jay’s character evolution is too jarring and Pinto struggles to match a difficult challenge, which Hardy purists will again point to as a moment which lacks the heartfelt sorrow of Tess’ ultimate fate. Trishna cannot match Hardy for passion or purpose, and lacks clarity as a story in its own right. As a sensory experience, lavishing in the changing sounds and colours of a new India, it is something to relish. A shame that its heart is so conflicted.