Normandy and Brittany substituted for bleak Industrial Revolution Dorset/Wessex, Polanski’s 1979 Tess was praised, not least for its Oscarized cinematography of the lush landscape. Further afield, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation, Trishna, unfolds in a contemporary India also undergoing social-economic upheaval, a relevance lacking in Bride & Prejudice, another English classic moved to the Raj. Both of the Thomas Hardy films bring out the best in their beautiful title leads, Nastassja Kinski and Freida Pinto, though this latest, shorter by nearly half at a hundred eight minutes, is more faithful in imaging the dry rural and town scenes as ironic metaphor for what is being lost to modernization. Deodorized and sanitized but memorably filmed and scored, it is less fully satisfactory in capturing the clutching crush and implication of the subcontinent’s megacities.
With that of fellow “Novel of Character and Environment” Jude the Obscure, the sexual frankness of 1891 Tess of the d’Urbervilles stirred fierce rejection that caused the author to abandon prose for poetry in his mid-fifties. The novels echo an epigraph he had used from Novalis, that “character is fate,” but with the caveat that in an indifferent universe, character and choice are circumscribed by forces outside individual control and will. Society’s mores and pecking order have much to do with fate, a particular target being the Victorian moralism that showed no sign of weakening in a materialistic world where science was trumping the reassurances of religious belief. As well, the writings were indictments of the marginalization of defenseless women in oppressive male- and money-dominated society.
Trishna is true to the author’s often-ignored subtitle, “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.” At nineteen the eldest child, she helps her poor Rajasthan family (played by actual locals) in its daily tasks and her father in his produce deliveries, works outside the home and, barely educated herself, insists the younger siblings apply themselves at school. She is spotted and courted by Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), persistent and pampered son of a London-based developer (Roshan Seth) and an English mother, an excuse for his not understanding Hindi.
Smoking hashish while tooling around in a four-by-four with similarly coddled buddies, he has come to the boonies to manage daddy’s posh hotel or, later, dabble at producing Bollywood-ish films in the big city.
Falling asleep at the wheel, Trishna’s father puts himself out of work with chest injuries, her in a forearm cast, and the family in debt for the smashed truck. Infatuated Jay seeks her out, sends cash and offers princely wages for her to work at the hotel, decorated with colorful birds and catering to a well-heeled, mostly Anglo clientele.
A combination of the source novel’s spiritual Angel Clare and physical nouveau-riche Alec, he is shy in pressing her, while she continues to address him and everyone as “Sir,” but after he rescues her from obnoxious townies they fall into one another’s passionate arms.
Pregnant from this one encounter, she goes home, where with no word of reproach the parents bring her for an abortion. Still pursued by Jay, to whom she reveals nothing of this, she moves into his apartment in Mumbai, where “no one cares” and, studying hotel management and watching national movies on television, she becomes interested in their dancing.
Visibly male-prerogative displeased when she does tell him of the terminated pregnancy, Jay leaves for London, his father felled by a stroke, and neglects to contact or advise her that their apartment sublease is expiring.
Contrite, he will come back, re-charm and reclaim and whisk her to another of the family hotels, where she is presented as merely another lowly staff member. Affection grows cold, the male in him takes out frustration on female her, love turns to lust, and Jay degrades her in sexual encounters to which she is cavalierly summoned. Unlike the original Tess, although both are related to nature, this Indian one is exasperatingly passive; tears flow in her humiliating vulnerability, but her thoughts are damned up away from us.
Though she unexpectedly seizes the reins of her lover’s fate and her own, Trishna herself is no poster girl for feminism. An acquiescent victim in this Toronto-London-India-Tokyo-Tribeca she-tragedy, she is more acted upon than active.
(Released by IFC Films and rated “R” for sexuality, some violence, drug use and language.)