Trishna is the third time the prolific British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has tackled Thomas Hardy and the first to not play it more or less straight. Jude (1995), based on Jude the Obscure, and The Claim (2000), an Americanized take on The Mayor of Casterbridge, are tough twists on the classic lit adaptation that pummel sprawling tomes into compact narratives, all while stressing their grim majesty. Trishna goes even further: for most of its run, you can be forgiven for regularly forgetting you’re watching an adaptation of one of the great novels, let alone a version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Winterbottom brings the tragedy, about the downfall of a “pure” but poor woman (here called Trishna and played by “it” beauty Freida Pinto), to modern-day India, whose disparate pockets of wealth and poverty at least superficially resembles 19th century England. More importantly, he infuses it with his signature style. Winterbottom is called a chameleon due to his yen for crossing genres (his previous film was The Trip, and before that was a take on Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me). But his approach tends to remain the same, no matter the material: handheld-heavy, favoring freshness and improv, varied only by speed. Trishna is arguably the fastest film he’s made since the immigrant saga In This World, all whiplash camerawork and quicksilver edits that throttle the viewer from one place to another.
Winterbottom’s approach is so intoxicating that it’s almost a shame when he has to attend to the plot, even if that plot happens to be Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Much of the source is excised, but the most questionable move is combining two main characters – evil libertine Alec and nice preacher’s son Angel – into Jay (Riz Ahmed). For all his energetic direction, Winterbottom is a lazy conceptualist, and Jay’s abrupt segue from sensitive loverboy to cruel rapist seems less like a radical reinterpretation of the source than a reckless way to cut down an over 500-page doorstop to under two hours. Winterbottom excels at collaboration, be that with screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce or Steve Coogan, but it’s a shame Hardy isn’t around to stand his ground. Or failing that, at least remind him that Pinto is the Webster’s definition of the term “pretty vacant.”