A version of this review appeared in The Age, May 12, 2012.
Michael Winterbottom is regularly heralded as a filmmaker capable of applying the same no-fuss technique to any subject, whether it's Casey Affleck beating women to a pulp in The Killer Inside Me or Steve Coogan enjoying a series of expensive meals in The Trip. Predictably, his latest venture as writer-director comes as yet another surprise: an adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy's classic novel about the tragedy of a “ruined” working-class maiden, relocated to modern India as a vehicle for the leading lady of Slumdog Millionaire.
That Trishna is Winterbottom's third Hardy adaptation suggests a surprising overlap of interests between the regional writer and the cosmopolitan filmmaker. In fact, Winterbottom has long been drawn to Hardy as a chronicler of tradition upended by the arrival of modernity – a story that continues to play out around the world, and a theme that correlates with the typical Winterbottom vision of contemporary urbanites as atoms whirling in a void.
A great novel by any standard, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a frank attack on puritan morality as well as a reflection of Hardy's own gloomy fatalism. Trishna is a much less realised work – even if the vagueness comes disguised as knowing ambiguity. Winterbottom has retained the shape of the story, and even some of its imagery, such as the comparison between the humble heroine and a caged bird. But while Hardy's Tess is mistreated by two very different men, Trishna (Frieda Pinto) has only one to contend with: Jay (Riz Ahmed), a wealthy, Western educated playboy whose father owns a chain of hotels.
Tess' troubles begin when she is raped by a local aristocrat, but Winterbottom avoids telling us if Trishna initially consents to Jay's advances – and indeed, how far she feels love or desire for him at any point. Likewise, we can only speculate whether Jay's misogyny stems from his rootless Western upbringing or from a covertly-held set of “traditional” values.
If anything links Winterbottom's recent projects beyond a generalised sense of anomie, it's the portrayal of predatory male sexual behaviour, in forms that range from horrific (The Killer Inside Me) to casually boorish (The Trip). Despite his “progressive” leanings, his approach to this theme is not exactly one of feminist outrage; indeed, there's some kind of spiritual link between the semi-anachronistic figure of the "heartless" cad and the director's own distance from his subject-matter, an admission made virtually explicit when Jay orders Trishna to dress up and strike poses for his benefit.
Winterbottom is always fond of asking his actors to ad-lib, but this time round the key exchanges between Pinto and Ahmed are too clumsy and obvious to have much dramatic force. Still, you could say that “going through the motions” is what his films are mainly concerned with: his characteristic attention to the routines of labour – here, workers toiling in the fields or chopping vegetables – mirrors his disingenuous approach to filmmaking as just another job.
The glancing editing technique leaves room for a lot of conventional local colour, from shots of monkeys and peacocks to glimpses of studio recording sessions and dance rehearsals in Mumbai, where Jay hopes to launch his career as a film producer. There's a touch of reflexivity here, making a point of how Trishna is both similar and different to its Bollywood equivalents. But again, the irony would be sharper if we had a better idea of the modest heroine's attitude towards her new, worldly friends.
In fact, we're rarely encouraged to speculate about Trishna's psychology or her motives, mixed as these might be. Almost to the end, she remains a passive character (far more so than Tess) defined by her beauty, her willingness to submit, and her mysterious self-containment. It's as if she embodied the true spirit of India, eternally beyond the grasp of Western man – though this is one more idea that Winterbottom would never be corny enough to spell out.