Freida Pinto as Trishna and Riz Ahmed as Jay in Michael Winterbottom's… (Sundance Selects / IFC Films,…)
Updating "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" from late 19th century Wessex to contemporary India, the protean director Michael Winterbottom combines his love of Thomas Hardy with an instinct for on-the-ground, socially engaged storytelling in his new film, "Trishna." The title character of his movie, played with intentional opacity by Freida Pinto, is a poor village girl whose romance with a privileged young man sweeps her up, briefly and tragically, in the whirl of India's modernization.
The setting, with its Old World versus new millennium tension, is an apt context for Hardy's themes of class status and the double standards that often define women's lives. The economic upheaval and push for social reform that are reflected in the 1891 novel echo resoundingly in "emerging-market" India. As a portrait of a nation amid accelerated and profound change, "Trishna" is a vivid piece of cinema. As a melodrama, it's provocative without being emotionally involving, the central performance more distancing than engaging.
Winterbottom — who has used Hardy novels as source material for two previous features, "Jude" and "The Claim" — retains pivotal plot points from "Tess," but this is no scene-by-scene adaptation. His use of improvisation is unself-conscious, the mix of trained actors and nonprofessionals seamless. With cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, a frequent collaborator, the director shapes a dynamic panorama connecting and contrasting Rajasthan, with its dusty roads and ancient temples, and the teeming, youth-fueled metropolis of Mumbai. If there's a travelogue feel to some of the sequences, it's nonetheless unforced and alive and a knowing nod to the embrace of tourism by the onetime British colony.
Even when we first see Jay, who becomes the innocent Trishna's lover and then her possessor, he's a sightseer in his own country, on holiday with pals from his school days in England. A composite of the book's sensitive idealist Angel and dissolute Alec, he's well played by Riz Ahmed ("Four Lions," "The Road to Guantanamo"), who makes the character's dark shifts compelling and believable.
Jay is a modern Indian who doesn't speak Hindi, and his awed fascination with Trishna is sparked not just by her loveliness but by the traditional purity he sees in her. The job he offers her, at one of his father's resort hotels, brings 2,500 rupees ($45) a week and takes her from home for the first time. Inevitably, his altruism gives way to seduction, and their romance begins its rocky, doomed trajectory.
In the city, they're not fettered by convention and can live together freely, and the section of the film set in Mumbai is the most complex and illuminating. Eager to escape the shadow of his successful father — brought to elegant life in a brief, beautifully etched turn by Roshan Seth — Jay tries to stake his claim as a movie producer. On the fringes of Bollywood, Jay and Trishna open to new possibilities. But their big-city idyll, with its charged sense of discovery, also puts in sharp relief the unbridgeable chasm between them. Winterbottom uses the heightened reality of Bollywood clips, ubiquitous on TV screens, to accentuate the melodramatic nature of the story.
Pinto, who in such films as"Slumdog Millionaire"and"Miral"has held the screen with her beauty but not left much of a lasting impression, is called upon to play a character of maddening passivity. It's a tough line for an actor to toe, and though she maintains the enigma, at once rigid and malleable, little registers behind Trishna's blankness, except in her moments of dire distress.
In its final section, "Trishna" is a pointed and discomforting look at sexual politics amid the remnants of casteism and newfangled badges of status. Even as Trishna takes matters into her own hands, a pall of fatalism veils the caught-between-worlds heroine.