That restless traveller Michael Winterbottom transports ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ to modern day India in his third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel. And like a Hardy character, ‘Trishna’ is compelling but flawed – perhaps fatally so, because all the emotion-crushing fierceness of the novel has been almost entirely lost en route to Rajasthan. Freida Pinto (‘Slumdog Millionaire’) plays ill-fated country girl Trishna/Tess, but the real star is Londoner Riz Ahmed, who gives a terrific performance as her seducer Jay, the British-Indian son of a property tycoon.
Winterbottom’s plan to direct ‘Tess’ as ‘Trishna’ predates the British film fad for ‘doing’ India – and in theory it works. In today’s India it’s plausible that Trishna, like Tess, suffers because she’s a woman and she’s poor. She catches Jay’s eye in a temple. British-born, he’s on holiday with his university mates and offers her a job in his dad’s hotel. For her, he’s prince charming from a Bollywood romance. For him? Well, there’s the novelty factor of pulling a village girl. Ahmed’s brilliance is his ambiguity: Jay loves Trishna but can’t get past the gulf in class.
The problem here is Pinto, who has struggled since ‘Slumdog…’ and never fully comes alive as Trishna. Saying that, the film sails along on a gorgeous score by Shigeru Umebayashi and Bollywood composer Amit Trivedi. Oddly enough, more moving than the violent tragedy playing out on screen in the lovers’ deadly final meeting are the achingly plaintive lines of the song (by Trivedi) that accompany it: ‘My love, you showed me how the world really is… you turned day into night.’ Now that really does make the heart beat more quickly.