‘Trishna” is based quite literally on a novel conceit: it’s Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” transposed to modern-day India. The director is the busy Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People,” “The Trip”) at his most fluidly confident. The movie takes in the country’s chaos and colors, its crowds and castes, with a breadth, if not depth, of vision that makes a movie like“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” seem the Cook’s tour it is.
Why, then, is this film so uninvolving? A sumptuously shot melodrama of a country girl’s seduction and betrayal, “Trishna” should move the soul and engage the tear ducts, yet it passes by as distant as it is lovely. And the blame must fall on the movie’s star, Freida Pinto.
It feels mean just to type those words, but it’s true. Pinto, who came to fame in “Slumdog Millionaire,” is one of the great beauties of modern cinema and probably a very nice person, but she’s a passive screen presence playing a passive dramatic heroine, and all that inertness stalls the film’s engines. Because the actress can’t convincingly fill in the blanks of her character, you watch the travails of Trishna with sympathy but never empathy.
Winterbottom tries to compensate by cramming all of India into his lens. At its best, “Trishna” lets us glimpse a culture both ancient and relentlessly modern, where the past presses in on the present and the present responds by remaking itself again and again. The two main characters couldn’t be a poorer match: Trishna is the uneducated eldest daughter of a man who delivers fruit for a living, while Jay (Riz Ahmed) is a British-raised rich boy who doesn’t speak Hindi. All that attracts them is what they represent to each other: innocence and worldliness.
Helping Trishna out after her father is hurt in an accident, Jay has her hired on at one of the hotels owned by his father (Roshan Seth, getting one pithy scene before heading back to England). The couple’s initial courtship is both touching (scored to a lilting waltz by composer Shigeru Umebayashi) and doomed by its class inequities. Jay’s the lord and Trishna’s the servant, and, after a heady few months in Mumbai where the two play at being on the same level, reality comes crashing back.
For better and for worse, Winterbottom has combined the two male characters of Hardy’s “Tess” — Alec and Angel Clare — into one, and Ahmed does a reasonable job making sense of the contradictions. We understand Jay’s attraction to Trishna and his hopes for a love that can rise above their vast differences, and we comprehend his turn to cruelty, if not its unforgivably brutal extent, in the third act. Telling the girl that the Kama Sutra says a man may make love only to a maid, a single lady, or a courtesan, he asks, “Which one are you? I think you are all three.”
The problem with “Trishna” is that we look into Pinto’s face and see D) none of the above.
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