What exactly is the point in setting a 19th century Thomas Hardy novel in present-day modern India? Yes, there’s an accusatory note there that does indeed suggest that the point hasn’t really made itself evident in Trishna, but since the original novel does exert a strong influence over the direction of the film it does nonetheless seem to be a fundamental question that needs addressed. There is the fact that Michael Winterbottom has previously made two other films based on Thomas Hardy books – Jude (based on 'Jude the Obscure') and The Claim (adapted from the 'Mayor of Casterbridge') – so it seems almost inevitable that 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles' had to eventually form part of a Hardy trilogy. As far as updating the work to view its subject from a perspective of modern relevance, well, the more cynical would note that recent new looks at Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights coped rather well with a somewhat revisionist view on classic works of romantic literature, but realistically, it’s hard to imagine there would be any commercial or artistic point in a director like Winterbotttom making a straightforward period adaptation of 'Tess'.
Of course 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles' is not quite in the same category as 'Jane Eyre' or 'Wuthering Heights' – there’s a darker tone underlying the romance that lies at its core and there is a greater sense of social statement in the work relating to the inequality between the respective genders, as well as the inequities of class that come into play. One would think that it’s this aspect that Michael Winterbottom sees as relevant today in setting the story in India (Disclaimer – it’s over 30 years since I read 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles', so I’m basing this on recollections of the work evoked by Michael Winterbottom’s treatment, which might not be entirely accurate), but the manner in which the director attempts to get those issues across and the means of doing it through Trishna, a country girl who is taken advantage of by a young Anglo-Indian heir to a hotel empire, does feel somewhat forced.
While it would be much harder to make such a story work in a modern Western context, it seems entirely credible for it to work effectively in India, where there is clearly still great a great gulf between the rich and the poor, who are exploited even more in the current economic times. Winterbottom is telling us nothing new there however, but it’s to the credit of the film that it finds its own way of making it seem like Jay (Riz Ahmed), the son of a wealthy property developer, is helping out Trishna (Freida Pinto) and her family by offering the young girl a job at one of his family’s hotels in the city just as they face extreme poverty when she and her father are involved in an accident that threatens their livelihood. Having met Trishna while travelling around India with friends visiting local temples, Jay clearly has designs on the young woman, but the attraction is reciprocated. Jay’s attitude towards business – he sees it as his birthright and doesn’t feel he needs to work for it – is however reflected in his attitude towards Trishna, and it places the young woman in a vulnerable and uncomfortably subservient position.
Quite what this tells us about the inequities of Indian society, about the gulf between the rich and the poor, about the social expectations placed on men and women, and the respective positions in a relationship, is somewhat negligible. That’s not necessarily a problem if the central relationship can be made to work on its own terms, not just as a metaphor or a social statement, or indeed as just a convenient means of transposing the 19th century values of a work of English literature onto present-day India. Unfortunately the characterisation of both Jay and Trishna is rather shallow, making their relationship – which is vital to whether you care about the film or not – less than convincing. It’s not necessarily a problem that Jay is unlikeable, decadent and uncaring of the feelings of others – he’s of a privileged upbringing and it’s not in his nature – but it’s harder to understand why Trishna tolerates him in the first place. The suggestion is that she doesn’t have a choice, needs the work for her family and is unable to reject his advances, but the script and setting don’t really account for her near total passivity, which makes the film’s eventual harsh resolution somewhat more difficult to tolerate.
The passivity in the characterisation of both Jay and Trishna (and her family it has to be said) is made up for to some extent by the fine cinematography, which picks out little details in the countryside, the wildlife and in the very light of the Rajasthan region and gives a solid foundation for the location setting that doesn’t rely on heavy-handed or tourist industry imagery, but neither does it form a convincing bond with the characters. A lot of time is spent on the Bollywood film industry, Trishna, her friends and whole families gripped by the latest glamorous movies, learning all the dance moves, and even getting to see behind the scenes of the filmmaking, but what purpose this serves is mystifying. Is it saying that the glamour is fake? Is Bollywood’s depiction of females in roles of power unrealistic or leading to unfulfilled expectations? The connection or relevance of this to Trishna’s life is never really made clear, and that unfortunately is the same problem with all other elements in the depiction of nature and the region that never really come to anything or mean anything.
Ultimately then, with the intentions rather confused about the social context and the relevance of 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles' to it all - it hardly stands as a universal model for relationships between men and women - the film can only really be judged on whether you are touched by Trishna’s predicament and exploitation on a personal level. She is certainly put through a number of deeply humiliating and abusive situations, and Freida Pinto does manage to make you feel her pain to a large extent, but the passivity of her underdeveloped character makes it hard to sympathise or even relate meaningfully to the unrelentingly depressing situation that develops. In that respect at least – being thoroughly miserable throughout – Trishna fulfills at least one prerequisite for a Thomas Hardy adaptation.