TrishnaReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/21/12 05:34:00
(Worth A Look)
In the hands of anyone else, the notion of doing a screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" that would relocate the action from Victorian England to the bustle of contemporary India might seem like the kind of inane and unnecessary "improvement" to a work of great literature that would inevitably lead to something along the lines of that dopey modern version of "Great Expectations" with Ethan Hawke that we all pretty much forgot about until about ten seconds ago. However, in the hands of Michael Winterbottom, a filmmaker so eclectic, prolific and ambitious that he makes Steven Soderbergh seem lazy and repetitive by comparison, the concept not only makes total sense but the only question that it inspires is one of why he didn't come up with such a concept a long time ago. As a result, we now have "Trishna" and while it probably will not go down as one of Winterbottom's great works when all is said and done thanks to a couple of curious decisions on his part, it is still an ambitious and reasonably heartfelt drama that at least has the good grace to supply viewers with a lead performance by Frieda Pinto--that extraordinary beauty from "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"--that is among the best of the year to date.Pinto plays Trishna, the beautiful,19-year-old daughter of a simple farming family living and working in a rural area of India. Under normal circumstances, she would no doubt live a perfectly happy and ordinary existence but before too long, two random events occur that unexpectedly change her life forever. The first comes when she makes the acquaintance of Jay (Riz Ahmed), the son of a rich Indian hotel magnate who is currently and unhappily managing one of his father's properties in Jaipur. The second comes when Trishna's father has an accident that leaves him critically injured and the truck that the family uses to deliver crops badly damaged and in need of expensive repairs. This leaves Trishna in the position of being the family breadwinner but salvation comes in when Jay offers her a job at the hotel in Jaipur that includes a more-than-decent salary and the opportunity to study hotel management at the university. Trishna accepts and sets off for Jaipur and everything seems to be going well for her--she is making enough money to help her family, she enjoys the taste of higher education that she could have never had otherwise and her relationship with Jay seems to be quietly blossoming from friendship to tentative romance. Then everything comes crashing down one night when something happens between the two one night and while we don't get to see exactly what transpires, the end result is unmistakable--Trishna leaves Jaipur and returns home, discovers that she is pregnant and has an abortion.
Time passes and Trishna, who has been sent off to work on her uncle's farm, has finally settled back into the rhythms of her former life when Jay turns up to inform her that he has left his father's business for good and to ask her to come with him to Mumbai, a place where, he hastens to mention, no one will care about the idea of them being a couple. Of course, the mere fact that he would mention that should have been an indicator that this is not the case but Trishna nevertheless accepts, though she doesn't say anything about the abortion. For a while, they are once again happy--they even both find work in the Bollywood film industry and there is the possibility that a beauty like Trishna could rise up from her humble beginnings and become a star. Before that happens, however, Jay's father takes ill and he makes plans to return home to visit him and before he leaves, Trishna tells him about the abortion. After a while, it becomes clear that he has abandoned her and she once again is forced to readjust her life. Jay eventually returns with another offer to rescue her--he is now running one of his dad's hotels and offers her a job there. It turns out, however, that the "job" largely consists of being Jay's sexual slave and as he plows through the Kama Sutra while behaving in an increasingly cruel manner, Trishna is forced to finally take a hold of her own destiny, no matter what the cost.
In most regards, Winterbottom has done a fairly smart and credible job in streamlining Hardy's work and in bringing it into the modern world. Rather than being just a gimmick, the relocation to India turns out to be a pretty smart move after all--by placing the action in a country in which there is still an enormous divide between tradition and progress and focusing on a character who finds herself alienated from both sides, Winterbottom has hit upon a clever way of mirroring the observation of the British class system that Hardy was exploring in painful detail. The other major difference is Winterbottom's decision to take his heroine's two suitors--the cad who ravished her and the nice guy who was nevertheless driven away when he learned her terrible secret--and combine them into the single character of Jay and this allows Winterbottom to put a human face on India's difficulties with reconciling its past and future by giving us a character who is willing to show just how forward-thinking he is, though only up to a point. Some have complained that the shift in Jay's behavior is too abrupt to be fully believable but I think it works in the sense that once Jay is forced to recognize that Trishna is her own person and capable of making her own decisions, he is then willing to re-embrace the more conservative attitudes of his family rather than give her equal footing in their relationship.
All of this is handled in an intelligent enough manner but as the film unfolded, I found myself regarding the material with a certain degree of indifference. This is strange because I consider the original book to be one of the greatest novels that I have ever read and I consider Roman Polanski's 1980 adaptation to be arguably the finest film of his entire career and one of the most moving films that I have ever seen. Done properly, this film should inspire feelings of heartbreak for its heroine and the horrible circumstances that she continues to find herself in through no fault of her own and absolute rage at those who take advantage of her trusting nature and cruelly use and exploit her for their own ends. These were the feelings I had in my encounters with the book and the Polanski film but to my surprise, I did not have them this time around. I think the problem is that Winterbottom spent so much time intellectualizing the problem of recasting the skeleton of the story into a plausible contemporary milieu that he inexplicably forgot to bring its heart along as well. I can respect, understand and even admire what Winterbottom has done here but the simple fact of the matter is that I never found myself responding to it on an emotional level and if ever there was a story that demanded an emotional response, this is the one.
The best thing about "Trishna," not to mention the key reason to see it when all is said and done, is Frieda Pinto's performance in the title role. Because she is undeniably one of the world's most beautiful women, there may be the assumption among some that she cannot possibly be a good actress as well and that she has only gotten as far as she has because of her looks. Ironically, or not, the same could have been said about Nastassja Kinski when she was cast as Tess in the Polanski film after a few roles in some relatively undistinguished films designed solely to exploit her nymphet-like appeal. However, as Kinski proved in the earlier film, Pinto is a strong actress as well and to whatever degree that "Trishna" succeeds, it is due in large part to her efforts. The role of Trishna is a tricky one because it is a largely passive one and done incorrectly, it could simply leave audiences frustrated over spending two hours watching the misadventures of someone who consistently fails to wake up and smell the curry. However, through Pinto's marvelous take on the role, we can accept why Trishna is so accepting of all the cruelties that life has in store for her as well as her final actions in which finally rebels against them in definitive fashion. This is great work and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is more than just another unbelievably pretty face.When all is said and done, "Trishna" is not the great film that one might have hoped it would be and will not go down as one of the great triumphs of Michael Winterbottom's ever-expanding filmography. However, it is smartly made, undeniably ambitious and contains a wonderful performance from Frieda Pinto and on that basis, I can sort of find my way to give it a mild endorsement. That said, I must admit that while watching the film, I kept flashing back on two older and infinitely better movies that were along the same lines. One is, of course, the Polanski "Tess," of which I have already made my admiration known. The other is "The Claim," Winterbottom's previous screen adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel and one of the great films of recent years that I can all but guarantee that you never got around to seeing. Not only are they both excellent films in their own right, they also suggest what "Trishna" might have been like if it had been as good as it should have considering the quality of the material and of the people bringing it to the screen. Yes, this is a good film when all is said and done but it really could and should have been better.
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