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Review: Trishna

Hardy’s Tess finds herself anguished in Rajasthan.

Hardy’s Tess finds herself anguished in Rajasthan.

Trishna (15)
dir: Michael Winterbottom

Until Michael Winterbottom sets Far From the Madding Crowd in a futuristic android colony, his version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles will remain the unlikeliest of his run of Thomas Hardy adaptations. The director's 1996 Jude tied Hardy's final novel to its birthplace, but The Claim (2000) packed The Mayor of Casterbridge off to the High Sierras in the gold-rush era. Now Trishna finds Tess in modern-day India. The film proves that you can take the girl out of Wessex, but you can't take Wessex out of the girl. Everything else is up for grabs.

Jay (Riz Ahmed), the English-born son of an Indian hotelier, is bumming around Rajasthan, ostensibly on business but with a distinct air of the gap year about him, when he spots Trishna (Freida Pinto) at a temple.

She teaches him some Hindi phrases, he gives her a lift home. When Jay learns that the family jeep, vital to the income of Trishna and her siblings, has been written off in an accident, he gives her a job at his father's hotel in Jaipur - the first in a series of chivalrous rescues that can only look in hindsight like preambles to torment.

How pretty is Trishna? When she rides pillion, she doesn't wear a crash helmet like everyone else, the better for passers-by to admire her face. When she walks among the sick on a dingy hospital ward, you have to remind yourself that this is not a macabre photo shoot or a bad-taste fashion show. Pinto's core of intelligence complicates her beauty: the character may be unknowable but she transmits faint signals of anguish and disappointment. She knows she deserves better than her fate.

Buttoned to the neck in a crisp white blazer, Trishna serves the hotel's clientele and tends to Jay's father's beloved birds. (I would say watch out for Roshan Seth in his one scene as the hotelier but you can't miss him: his charisma is dazzling.) If only Trishna could see that the camera has framed her behind the wire of the aviary, so that she is just another exotic pet.

Jay's request that she should serve lunch to him each day is a harbinger of the turn their relationship will take, from the professional to the romantic and into the realms of the colonial. Not having read Hardy, Trishna can't know that Jay is really Alec by another name, and that their affair will not end in palatial splendour and his-and-hers en-suites.

Readers of the novel will prepare themselves for an Angel to alleviate temporarily her suffering en route to tragedy. Now, how to put this gently? There is no Angel. Winterbottom's most radical adjustment, even more than switching period and continent, is to conflate Alec and Angel so that there is only Jay. The ramifications of this are extreme enough to risk disqualifying Trishna from the category of adaptation. The nature of Jay's shock upon learning many months after the fact that Trishna aborted his child is naturally very different to what Angel feels about the rape of the woman he has just married. The two emotions can't be interchangeable.

On the other hand, the film is characterised by ambiguities that lend their own tart flavour. Does Jay rape Trishna after rescuing her from the attentions of a pair of brutes on an unlit street, or does he merely take advantage of her gratitude and vulnerability? We can't be certain, but the etiquette of the knight in shining armour surely demands that you don't jump the damsel in distress on the way home.

If the film is not strictly Hardy, it has its own value. Winterbottom has always excelled at capturing landscape without succumbing to the prettification of the travelogue - it's his BBC comedy series The Trip, rather than any of his movies, that has come closest to visual indulgence - and none of the locations in Trishna are on screen long enough to curdle into the decorative. The cinematographer, Marcel Zyskind, and the editor, Mags Arnold, share their director's quick, inquisitive rhythm. The soundtrack is two-pronged. Amit Trivedi's yearning pop compositions express Trishna's idealism. Then Shigeru Umebayashi's grave score weighs in with the bad news, sounding only occasionally like a product of the Automatic Thomas Hardy Film Music Generator.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide