Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: Michael Winterbottom based on the novel by Thomas Hardy.
Starring: Freida Pinto (Trishna), Riz Ahmed (Jay), Anurag Kashyap (Himself), Roshan Seth (Jay's father), Kalki Koechlin (Herself), Neet Mohan (Sandeep), Harish Khanna (Vijay), Aakash Dahiya (Avit), Meeta Vashisht (Trishna's mother).
Michael Winterbottom is one of those directors that you never really know what he’s going to do next. He has made period pieces, comedies, documentaries, modern dramas, a Western, a science fiction film, even a film that combined music and actual sex scenes. His films have taken place in countries around the world, from America, to the Middle East, to England and everywhere else. He is one of the most prolific directors working today – and when he is on the top of his game, he can also be one of the best.
For his latest film, Trishna, he goes to India, and decides to adapt Thomas Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and place it into modern India. Winterbottom has had success before adapting Hardy – my personal favorite film of his was The Claim, his McCabe and Mrs. Miller inspired Western based on Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Unfortunately, Trishna is nowhere near as good as good as The Claim. Winterbottom makes a few crucial mistakes in this adaptation – the biggest being combining the two men from Hardy’s novel into one character, which causes him to seem rather schizophrenic at times. The other major problem is the casting of Frieda Pinto in the lead role. She is too much of a blank slate in the film – far too passive. While I understand the character requires subtlety to be effective, Pinto plays it far too cool – coming across not as a woman trapped by her circumstance, which is what she should be, but as not a very bright woman who does nothing to save herself.
Trishna is the eldest child in her family, who helps her father run his small business. They do not have a lot of money, and when he gets into an accident, the family wonders how they are going to make ends meet, Trishna has caught the eye of Jay (Riz Ahmed), a rich kid who has been raised in England, but has returned to India to help run his father’s hotels. He offers Trishna a job – but certainly has other things on his mind. She knows this, but takes the job anyway. This begins her descent – powerless and trapped with Jay, who after all has all the money, so he has all the power in the relationship. But Trishna – not once, but twice – decides to return to Jay when she doesn’t have to. And this seals her fate.
The movie really has two main problems. The biggest one is that the audience is never really able to get a handle on Jay. By combining the two lovers in Hardy’s novel – the cruel rich man, and the kind but jealous small minded poorer one – actor Riz Ahmed is given a nearly impossible role – and he just cannot pull it off. From one scene to the next, we never know how Jay is going to be – how he is going to treat Trishna. And once he truly reveals his real colors – and lets the cruelty take over, he descends so quickly that I never really bought it. The other major problem is Pinto’s performance as Trishna. I know that she was trying to be subtle here – trying to play the woman who cannot speak up, who is powerless and just needs to go along with what the rich Jay wants from her. But there is a difference between subtle and blank. This is the type of role where you have to read the emotions from Pinto’s face – because she is never ever able to vocalize her complex emotions. But too often, I got nothing from Pinto’s face. She is breathtakingly beautiful, but there seems to be very little going one behind her eyes. We should be reading pain, torment, conflict in those eyes – and instead we get nothing. While we feel sorry for Trishna on a human level, we should be emotionally devastated by this performance, and I never was.
The film is beautiful to look at though. Of course, India can be beautiful if you shoot it properly, and that is precisely what Winterbottom does. Had the performances been better, the visual look would have made a nice off set to that – the beauty of the upper class hotels and neighborhoods where much of the movie takes place, to counteract the pain and torment of the story, could have made for a great film. But Winterbottom cannot get what he needs from the two lead actors. And so Trishna remains a hollow film – great to look at, but with not a lot going on behind those images.