REVIEW: Michael Winterbottom Whisks Hardy's Tess to India with Trishna

Movieline Score:

Michael Winterbottom, one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic filmmakers of our age, makes so many movies that some of them creep into festivals very quietly and, just as quietly, creep out, never to be seen again. That wasn't the case with The Trip, for my money one of the most intriguing pictures of 2011, a woolly exploration of middle-aged angst that featured Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (as themselves) bickering and trading Sean Connery impersonations as they made their way through the English countryside. But two years before that, in 2008, Winterbottom brought a picture called Genova to the Toronto International Film Festival. The picture, a mildly engaging drama in which Colin Firth plays a father who moves his family to Italy after the death of their mother, never got a U.S. release, fading like the worn face of a stone saint on a medieval church. Fortunately, Winterbottom’s latest, Trishna, a retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles set in contemporary India, hasn’t met the same fate. And though it’s a bit of an oddity, it’s an affecting curio suitable for both Hardy enthusiasts and Winterbottom fans alike.

Freida Pinto is Trishna, the Tess character, who comes from an impoverished family living in a small village. Jay (Riz Ahmed), is her Angel/Alec (Hardy purists should be warned that the two characters have been condensed into one, perhaps a bit clumsily), a man who sweeps her away from her life of poverty, only to end up resenting and degrading her.

Even if Winterbottom has taken what some might consider unforgivable liberties with the story, Trishna works: Winterbottom has a feel for the story's landscape, including the hardscrabble beauty of the countryside, all yellow dust and scrubby trees. It's both a place Trishna needs to escape from and it's home — there's no safety or freedom there, but it's the only place she's truly herself.

Pinto gives a lovely performance here. No other role she's been given — as the hero's dream woman in Slumdog Millionaire, or as a Palestinian orphan girl in Julian Schnabel's deeply disappointing Miral — has asked as much of her, and she greets the challenge boldly. In the barest terms of the plot, Trishna is a victim, a tragic heroine, but Pinto always lets you see the character's immovable self-assurance shimmering beneath the surface — that's the very thing that threatens her lover and tormentor, and brings about her downfall.

In Winterbottom's scenario, Jay's sudden turn against Trishna isn't believable or readable in movie terms — his love for her appears to be operated by a switch that turns off abruptly without cause or reason — but it makes sense in the grander scheme of the impossibility of love. The dialogue here is mostly improvised — this is a casual, hip-pocket approach to a revered classic — but Winterbottom keeps the story moving deftly. We might appreciate Winterbottom more if he worked less, but he's unlike any other filmmaker on the landscape, trying something new just about every year. Some of it sticks and some of it doesn't. But almost always, he gives us something worth looking at.

Editor's note: Portions of this review appeared earlier in Stephanie Zacharek's Toronto International Film Festival coverage.