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Tess of Rajasthan


In 20 years of filmmaking, the British director Michael Winterbottom may not have become a household name, but he has produced an oeuvre of such variety to rate as one of the most consistently intriguing filmmakers on the international scene. He is probably best known in the US for a few comedies starring Steve Coogan, including 24 Hour Party People and last summer’s arthouse hit The Trip. But those are lightweights (albeit immensely satisfying ones) on a resume that also includes the brutal Jim Thompson adaptation The Killer Inside Me, the documentary The Road to Guantanamo, the sexually explicit 9 Songs, and the science-fiction romance Code 46. (As with Ang Lee, you sometimes get the impression that he picks his projects primarily from the desire to do something as different as possible as his last film.)

His latest film, Trishna, was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s Winterbottom’s third Hardy adaptation, though the trio couldn’t be more different from each other once you get past the novelist’s name. Jude (1998) was a straightforward adaptation of Jude the Obscure. The Claim (2000) moved The Mayor of Casterbridge to the Old West. Trishna moves Hardy’s most famous heroine just as far in the opposite direction, to modern day India.

In the rural Indian state of Rajasthan, Trishna (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) is an uneducated young woman who works to help support her family. She catches the eye of Jay (Riz Ahmed), who was raised in England and is here visiting the “homeland.”

When her father is injured in an accident, Jay offers her a job at one of the hotels that is the source of his family’s wealth. Because the pittance it pays (about $45 a week) is far better than anything she can earn locally, her father insists that she accept, even though it means moving away from home.

Despite her misgivings, Trishna initially does well in her new surroundings. Jay clearly would like to get to know her better, but doesn’t press her, advising her instead to think about her future by taking a course in hotel management. Things go well until they don’t, and the country girl’s traditional upbringing clashes with her situation.

To describe more of the story isn’t possible because at this point Trishna’s actions become somewhat inexplicable (as Jay’s become ambiguous). If you’ve read the novel or recall Roman Polanski’s excellent film of it, you’ll know that the heroine becomes a sexual victim (though whether of rape or her own nature is unclear).

Winterbottom’s biggest divergence from Hardy’s story is to take the two male characters who affect Trishna’s destiny and merge them into one with Jay. It’s a strategy that makes the character’s arc a bit puzzling, especially given that the script (which reportedly contains a lot of improvisation by the cast) prefers never to be too explicit about its themes.

Still, you don’t have to know too much about modern India to realize that it’s a suitable place to explore Hardy’s tragic themes of the crushing effects of modernization on a population unprepared for it. Like Nastassja Kinski in Polanski’s film, Pinto’s performance sometimes feels frustratingly opaque, as if she had been cast primarily for her beauty: she expresses emotions—suffering, longing, disappointment—strongly, but her actions are often vague.

But if the story can feel slapdash, the film is filled with smart choices, like brushing Trishna up against the Indian film industry, which grinds out images so ostensibly chaste yet sexually charged that it’s a wonder all adolescent Indians don’t literally explode from the contradictions they are fed. As in many of his films, Trishna gives the impression that Winterbottom has too many ideas he wants to explore to care about focusing and trimming them. He may yet make a fully realized film: This isn’t it, but you’d be hard pressed to call it a failure.

Watch the trailer for Trishna

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