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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.