Thomas Hardy has a powerful hold on Michael Winterbottom. The prolific British filmmaker has adapted three of the novelist’s books to screen: the straightforward 1996 Jude, which brought him to the attention of the film world; 2000’s The Claim, which transferred The Mayor Of Casterbridge to Gold Rush-era California; and now Trishna, which retells Tess Of The D’Urbervilles in present-day India. It’s half a brilliant idea, though in keeping with Hardy’s fatalistic ending, it takes a turn toward harsh melodrama after sensitively laying out issues of class and social mores in a changing world. Like Tess, Trishna (Freida Pinto) is a victim of economic pressure and an overwhelming sexual double standard, a naïve Rajasthan village girl who catches the eye of the British-born son (Four Lions star Riz Ahmed) of a wealthy hotelier being prepped to take over his family business.
Ahmed is a mixture of the betraying true love and the aristocratic despoiler of the original story, one who isn’t malicious in his aggressively contemporary pursuit of Pinto, for whom he finds a job in his Jaipur resort after an accident leaves her father unable to work. But his sensitivity to her situation—he eventually moves with her to more sophisticated Mumbai, where they can live together without comment—is only surface-level. The two playact at being in a modern, even relationship, but Ahmed doesn’t grasp the ways in which the power is entirely on his side, so much so that when he leaves the country to attend to his stricken father and the lease to their apartment runs out, Pinto doesn’t feel comfortable calling him for help.
Trishna is in love with India without romanticizing it. Winterbottom, working with cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, uses his signature fluid, naturalistic style to follow Pinto from crowded factories to luxurious commercial shoots, from urban cafes to her family’s rural house, showcasing the country’s vast divisions in financial and social standards. Pinto finds in her character a cautious, crushing wonder as she comes to trust in Ahmed and to open herself to the new things to which she’s exposed, but neither she nor her costar can make the final transition to tragedy work, nor the significant personality shifts it calls for. Trishna puts forward an expressively detailed sketch of a world in transition, but it’s anchored to a 19th-century fiction that isn’t, in its entirety, suited to be hauled into the present.