Music Feature

Film Review: Trishna

by Piers Marchant
A young woman is undone (again).
trishna_med

Dir. Michael Winterbottom
Score: 6.0

Though Michael Winterbottom's film is allegedly based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, it works a bit as in the way O Brother, Where Art Thou was "based" on The Odyssey. Instead of 19th century England, we have 21st Century India; instead of rolling farms, we have luxury country hotels, and instead of whispered entreaties and secret letters, we have lots and lots of Bollywood-style dancing. Just the same, the essential story -- a beautiful, young woman is done in by a combination of wretched social stigma and an astounding inability to assert herself until it's far too late -- remains largely intact.

Trishna (Freida Pinto), a simple country girl who helps her father run his small produce business, meets Jay (Riz Ahmed), a young aristocrat, whose father owns several high-end hotels in the country, as Jay is whizzing about the countryside with a few of his equally privileged pals. Despite his wealth, he's not a loathsome lothario, though, as when he hears of a car accident that has cost Trishna's family the loss of their lone jeep, and her father's business as a result, he offers her a job at one of his father's hotels some distance away.

At first, things go very well, as Trishna learns to be more and more capable, even taking classes in hotel management at the request of her young benefactor, but one night, things get a bit out of hand, and she feels forced to leave the hotel and return back home, now pregnant with Jay's child, which she quickly aborts.

When Jay finally tracks her down, he begs for her to come with him to Mumbai, where he's moved and the two enjoy an idyll as a romantic coupling of equals amongst Jay's many entertainer friends. But when Jay is forced by his father's illness to return to the hotel business, he convinces Trishna to return with him as an employee, not a partner, a situation that suddenly puts her on a subservient level to him, which, in turn, leads to all sorts of bloody complications.

As freely adapted as it may be, Winterbottom, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to keep the essence of the doomed, largely innocent maiden and finds some interesting traction within Jay and Trishna's relationship, as it subtly switches from star-eyed lovers to brutal antagonists. The result is perhaps a bit closer to early Roman Polanski (who, himself, interestingly made a more faithful adaption in 1978 with Tess), than Hardy, but it's no less fascinating to witness.

Part of the strength of the film's closing act is how well it sets up its two protagonists beforehand: Trishna is sweet and dutiful, but after she gets a taste of life outside her small village, she understandably feels as if she's destined for something better; and Jay, up until he's forced to return to a career situation he truly despises, is tender and kind-hearted, to the point where you understand the emotional pull he has on Trishna's heart, and the way she feels utterly betrayed when out of idleness and bitter boredom, he turns their romance into a miserable game of master and servant. And Winterbottom's camera -- as always with a penchant for handheld intimacy -- helps bring that much more power to the couple's creeping inequality.

If the original novel was meant to point out the inequities in both gender roles and social standing -- causing a bit of a stir in its time as a result -- the film moves in a similar fashion. By the end, both Tess and Trishna come up against a hypocritical social standard they simply cannot live with, but perhaps the real problem is the same as it has been for women time immemorial: They blindly throw their faith in the wrong young gentlemen and end up having to pay a terrible price for their misguided folly.

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