Michael Winterbottom’s contemporary update of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was something that I had been looking forward to seeing for a long time. This is his third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, and by far his most audacious: taking a story set in 19th century England and relocating it to modern day India, while retaining the essence and nuance of the original story, was no easy feat.
Unfortunately, it shows. I knew from the beginning that this was not a movie to judge as aliterary adaptation, and I refuse to do so. This should be judged on its merits as a film in its own right – but even with this taken into consideration, there are major problems.
First, I would like to state that there are things to admire in this movie. Freida Pinto in the main role proves to the world (if there was any doubt after her performance in Slumdog Millionaire) what a talented actress she is. Combine with this some truly beautiful cinematography and a story packed with emotional depth and powerful statements about modern Indian society, relationships and sexual politics – and we should be on for a winner, surely!
Yet, despite Pinto’s wonderful lead performance, her talents do not extend to some of her co-stars – most notably Riz Ahmed, who in an inspired but flawed directorial decision plays a character in whom Alec and Angel from the novel are combined. The result, although more successful than I originally thought it would be, still isn’t entirely believable, especially in the film’s final third – by far the weakest section of the film.
There are other, more minor flaws: with the exception of some wonderful technical flourishes (including a brilliantly filmed murder scene at the end of the film, and some interesting decisions in the cinematography department in shooting a car crash nearer the start of the movie), the editing is sometimes very shoddy, which undercuts not only some of the most beautiful filmed scenes in the movie, but also creates frequent continuity errors.
However, by far the most disappointing thing about Trishna is its script: it sounds all the way through like a first draft. The characters talk in tired clichés, and surprisingly, there are no interesting set pieces until very near the end of the movie, meaning that for most of its running time, the film is running on neutral, with very little passion or forward momentum driving the plot along. It stalls far too often, and although I don’t know how many scenes were consigned to the cutting room floor before the film’s release, I would argue whole-heartedly that there are still more that could be shed.
I’m sorry to say that Trishna, despite great potential, left me very disappointed. It is a flawed melodrama with no gusto or passion, which inevitably means that its overwrought ending feels horribly out of place. It isn’t a complete disaster – as I have said, there are positives, and it is certainly a brave and interesting effort, which I am sure many film buffs and lovers of literature will be itching to see: indeed, I would encourage them to see it (albeit with their expectations lowered). Despite its many failings, there is enough to be found in this movie (in both its conception and execution) to make it worth a single viewing. However, for me, Roman Polanski’s 1979 film Tess remains the definitive adaptation of the Hardy novel.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (March ’12)