Michael Winterbottom (The Road to Guantánamo (2006)) was certainly ambitious in choosing to adapt Thomas Hardy‘s classic novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, update it and set it in modern-day India – Roman Polanski‘s Tess (1979) was the most recent cinematic adaptation of Hardy’s tale, but comparisons between that and Winterbottom’s film are largely pointless, given the huge differences in setting, approach and mood.
SPOILERS AHEAD! The story tells of the ultimately doomed relationship between the son of a property developer played by Roshan Seth, Jay (Riz Ahmed) and Trishna (Freida Pinto), the daughter of an auto rickshaw owner. When Trishna’s father is injured in a crash and is unable to work for some months, Jay offers Trishna the chance to come and work in his father’s hotel (which he is supposed to be taking over, but is really not keen on so doing). She gladly accepts but, by slow degrees, she and Jay fall in love. After they have made love for the first time, Trishna flees in shame back to her home village, where she realises she is pregnant. Her father arranges an abortion for her – shortly after, Jay turns up and begs her to leave with him and she does, more’s the pity.
Pinto, to be fair, is startlingly beautiful and startling in her role – Winterbottom’s pacing, while at times stuttering, nevertheless suits the langurous sense of hidden fires that Pinto’s onscreen presence generates as Trishna.
Ahmed, on the other hand, is only ever passable in his performance, and it is with his characterization and Winterbottom’s writing in this respect that I had the most problems – a great deal of time is spent establishing what is good, potentially great, between him and Trishna, but then, seemingly on a whim, this is undermined when Jay begins to show his ‘true’ colours, namely that all he really wants is to subjugate Trishna.
Sorry, but this simply does not ring true with what has gone before and, as a result, the film’s climax is seriously undermined. Likewise, while one can understand the frustration, even torment, that Trishna is starting to feel, I just cannot buy this as a justification of her actions. In the novel, there was a traditional lovers’ triangle, which gives far more credence to the book and film’s finale, but here, one is left only with a sense of ‘Why?’.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth a view but, again, it could have been so much more.