Dir. Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2011, 113 mins
Review by Carol Allen
Director Winterbottom seems to have a particular love for Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. There was his film Jude, based on Jude the Obscure and The Claim, where he transposed the themes in The Mayor of Casterbridge to the Klondyke in the nineteenth century. He does something similar here in Trishna, reworking the story of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the setting of contemporaryIndia.
Pinto, in one of her best roles since her debut in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, is like Hardy’s Tess a village girl who dreams of a better life. That seems to be happening when she meets Jay Singh (Ahmed), a wealthy young British businessman, who offers her a job in his father’s newly acquired hotel in Rajasthan, which he has come to India to manage. They fall in love but when she becomes pregnant by him, Trishna runs back to her village, overcome with the shame of her situation. And although the couple are to be reunited later in the story, things will never be the same for them again.
As well as his admiration for Hardy, Winterbottom obviously also has a love for India. The film not only looks beautiful, but it captures our interest in its picture of the modern sub continent and the contrast between the rural life -Trishna’s home is not a hovel but it certainly lacks mod cons – and the luxury of the Jaye’s hotel and later the bustle and skyscrapers of Mumbai, where he takes her, once he finds her again. The scenes in the media world and the Bollywood studios there are particularly fascinating.
Pinto and Ahmed are both beautiful and engaging in the main roles. Although their relationship is central to the film, the focus, as in Hardy’s book, is really on her. Trishna is sometimes annoyingly submissive but then so is Tess in the novel. And Pinto is often very touching in the role
There is though a problem with Jaye, which is no criticism of Ahmed, who is a very good, up and coming young actor. But he’s been given a bit of an insoluble problem, in that his character combines Tess’s two lovers from the novel – Alec, the man who rapes and impregnates her and whose mistress she becomes, when her other lover, Angel, is so uptight he rejects her because of her “impure” past. The two elements aren’t really integrated in the character of Jaye. He seems a likeable young man in the early scenes, where he is captivated by Trishna’s purity and innocence (c.f. Angel). When he takes her to Mumbai, he then deserts her for several months without word – thoughtless behaviour to say the least, though there are good reasons for that. But then in the last section of the film, like Hardy’s Alec, he becomes a sexually predatory monster and it doesn’t all hang together. We need to know more about him in order to make the character ring true. There is a lovely but sadly small cameo from Roshan Seth as his father. It might have helped our understanding of the son, if we had seen more of their relationship.
There is also another aspect of the film, which could have been developed to make the character more convincing. The story opens with a scene involving Jaye and his young British Asian friends, who are enjoying a holiday with him inIndia, before he embarks on his new responsibilities. Like any other young male Brits, their interests are beaches, beer and birds – they are effectively foreigners in the land of their ethnic culture, which would have been an interesting area to explore further through the character of Jaye as the film progressed. It isn’t however but maybe that would provided an insight into somewhat Jekyll and Hyde nature of the man.