‘Trishna’ may only appeal to die-hard fans of Michael Winterbottom’s films

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Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Written by Michael Winterbottom

United Kingdom, 2011

Capturing a character’s inner turmoil is always a challenge, but far more so in a movie than in a book. An author can go into massive detail on the page to tell us exactly how a character feels; a screenwriter and director has to either include voiceover narration or let the actors they’re working with convey a person’s deepest pain with dialogue and facial expressions. In Trishna, a modern-day retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, writer and director Michael Winterbottom steers clear of narration, focusing instead on the actress playing the title character, Freida Pinto. While Pinto, and the film surrounding her, is beautiful to look at, much of Trishna’s struggle isn’t brought to life as well as it could be.

Trishna is a tragic love story set in India, between Trishna and Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), who meet one night at a party. Though Jay is in a higher social class than Trishna is, thanks to his father’s hotel, he’s captivated by her beauty and seductive dancing skills. After an accident befalls Trishna’s father, Jay offers her work at the hotel, where their romance begins in earnest. They initially have extreme chemistry (more the characters than the performers), but as Trishna meets new people and tries to advance herself in society and the Indian dancing world, petty differences between she and Jay grow into massive obstacles in their shared and separate happiness.

Winterbottom is one of the more eclectic, unpredictable directors working in independent film today; before Trishna, he’d worked on other adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels, such as Jude, but he also directed 24 Hour Party People and The Trip, which gave us the infamous “dueling Michael Caine impressions” viral video. Whatever style Winterbottom brings to his other projects, it’s mostly absent from Trishna. The film looks seriously impressive—it’s made to be seen on the best possible screen or on a Blu-ray, so the vibrant colors of India, specifically Mumbai and Jaipur, can come to life in spectacular fashion. In many ways, however, the biggest stylistic flourish is setting the film in India, as opposed to how Winterbottom shoots within the setting.

And as bright and exciting as Trishna may be to look at, the story falls mostly flat because it’s too reliant on the audience knowing every beat of the Hardy novel. Pinto and Ahmed are somewhat well matched in the early going physically, though never enough to truly get across their gradual and intimate seduction. What’s more, as their romance hits major roadblocks, the mental agony they feel—mostly Trishna—doesn’t translate very well to the audience. The performers feel too disconnected from each other, so their characters don’t have the sufficient spark. The final act, despite potentially remaining faithful to the basic plot twists and turns Hardy created, feels abrupt. What’s more, the tragic aspects to Hardy’s novel don’t feel modern in Winterbottom’s adaptation, more like something he knew he had to conform to in hewing to the basic beats of the story.

Pinto and Ahmed are nice-looking, and early on, Ahmed is charming as Jay slowly but surely woos Trishna. However, there’s a level of passion the characters need to have on screen that’s absent from their performances. As their relationship grows unhealthy and disturbing, Pinto and Ahmed do the best they can in selling their characters’ guilt and control issues, respectively, but the journey to get to that low point doesn’t make much sense. As such, the overall story ends up being a hollow shell of emotion.

Trishna, in the end, is a striking visual exercise, but a movie that may only appeal to die-hard fans of Michael Winterbottom’s films or of Thomas Hardy’s novels. As a marquee film for Freida Pinto, the love interest in Slumdog Millionaire and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it only proves that she’s quite lovely to look at for two hours. Her acting isn’t a huge problem, but being able to convey a character’s internal thought process is difficult even with the best, most intense and emotional script. Unfortunately, Pinto’s given a script with too many gaps, too many unanswered questions, and too little life in it. Trishna’s worth watching for the sights, but not for the content.

– Josh Spiegel

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