In A Conflicted India, A Doomed Romance Unfolds

Jul 12, 2012

"Do you think you'll have to pay a high price for your mistakes?"

That line is spoken on an Indian game show watched by Trishna, the title character of Michael Winterbottom's subcontinental rethink of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

The penalties for mistakes on the game show are only monetary in nature, of course. For Trishna, the costs of her errors in judgment are measured on an entirely different scale. This being a Hardy story, you can count on this: They'll be high, and they'll be unpleasant.

Something in Hardy's tragic inclinations obviously appeals to Winterbottom; this is the third time he's adapted one of the author's novels, with the liberties he takes with the source material increasing each time.

In taking on Tess, Winterbottom has moved the action to modern India, seemingly a far cry from the book's Victorian England. But the new setting proves an effective analogue for the novel's clash of traditional mores with modern social and sexual standards.

Trishna (Freida Pinto, in a tightly controlled performance that conveys the intensely inward-facing emotions of the character) is the eldest daughter of a large rural Indian family who catches the eye of a wealthy young man as he and his friends are sightseeing in the area around her village.

Jay (Riz Ahmed) is India-born but raised in Britain, the heir to his father's lucrative hotel business. When Trishna's father becomes unable to work following a car accident, Jay gives her a job at the Jaipur hotel he's running for his dad, at a salary far above anything she could earn near home. The movie documents, over the course of many months and multiple separations and reunions, the doomed romance that develops between the two.

In Hardy's book, Tess has two love interests, but Winterbottom composites these characters to create Jay. It's a fascinating choice, allowing for a complex character that embodies, in one package, many of the class and moral conflicts that Hardy split in two, and allowing Winterbottom to show how even the forward-thinking modernist can hold some backward, traditional notions. It also makes the relationship that develops between Jay and Trishna seem less like a series of choices that she is forced into making and more like an unavoidable trap that she keeps being pulled into.

Trishna's social station doesn't offer her much in the way of escape plans. She's too poor to afford college, and once her father is incapacitated the family can't even afford to send her younger siblings to primary school. If life has taught her anything, it's that opportunities are rare, and "no" shouldn't be in one's vocabulary.

But Jay keeps betraying her in increasingly heinous ways: At one point he heads back to England to care for his sick father, leaving her to be evicted when he fails to renew the lease on their Mumbai flat, a subtle retribution for an unpleasant secret she reveals to him just before he leaves. But she keeps accepting him whenever he comes back; what other choice does she have?

The narrative has a deliberate pace, but Winterbottom maintains a forward drive with transitions and montages that are full of relatively quick edits. When Jay's father complains of the chaos of Indian cities while enjoying the bucolic gardens of his hotel, for instance, the contrast he's articulating has already been established in these sequences, a subtle visual representation of the pace of modern and traditional India conveyed through the pace and rhythms of the editing.

Winterbottom is similarly subtle in his storytelling, often leaving events indefinite to concentrate on the aftermath more than the event itself. Fans of the novel will find his treatment of the notorious rape scene particularly interesting; he cuts away before anything really happens, ultimately suggesting that given Trishna's traditional upbringing, both rape and consensual sex outside of marriage each carry potentially devastating fallout.

That Trishna makes mistakes is without question, but Winterbottom structures the film so that there is an air of inevitability to these decisions. That makes the downward spiral of the film's final half-hour, a slow and emotional gut punch, seem even more unfair to a character we desperately want to pull out of her tragic tailspin.

But this is Hardy, after all: An unjust universe comes with the territory. (Recommended)

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