11 March 2012

East Meets Wessex

My favourite Hardy is Tom, the actor. I'm much less keen on the writings of Thomas, the writer, but I only found out towards the end of the trailer for Michael Winterbottom's Trishna that the movie is based on Tess of the d'Urbervilles and by then, it had already caught my attention. Moving the action from 19th century Wessex to contemporary India, Trishna is, overall, an interesting, colourful if ultimately (and unsurprisingly) tragic interpretation of Hardy's novel.

As Trishna opens, half-Indian Jay (Riz Ahmed) and his British buddies are on a sort of gap yah and are nearing the end of a grand tour of India, after which Jay will go and take over one of his father's hotels in Jaipur. But on the last night, Jay spots a beautiful girl dancing as part of the entertainments that are going on in the small town in which they find themselves. He sees the girl, whose name is Trishna (Freida Pinto) again the following day and tells her he will get a job for her in his father's hotel. She expects never to see hear from him again and returns to her family's small house in the countryside. But one day, her father falls asleep at the wheel of his truck and crashes, destroying the truck, seriously injuring himself and breaking Trishna's arm. Luckily, Jay has managed to secure Trishna the hotel job and she heads off to Jaipur. 

Jay clearly has the hots for Trishna and it seems that she likes him too but is far too worried about leaving her job to do anything and their relationship remains that of a master and his servant. Later, though, they defy their families and societal and cultural norms and run away to Mumbai. Jay doesn't really like managing hotels, he decides, as it's too much like hard work. In the big city, they are free to be together and it is wonderful and romantic. But because this is based on a Hardy novel, we know things aren't going to end well. His father's illness forces Jay to return to the hotel, where Trisha cannot be accepted as his girlfriend and instead takes a job at the hotel, where she must satisfy his every demand. Bringing him a drink or lunch, at first, but then, after his perusal of the Kama Sutra, his wishes become more carnal. The easy-going, happy, loved-up Jay from the first part of the film has been replaced by a colder, crueller man who seems to enjoy some of the benefits the caste system can bring him (Jay is an amalgamation of the characters of Alec and Angel from the novel, hence his character's complete 180). And no, it doesn't end well.

I thought the setting worked well and the film is beautifully shot, contrasting long, leisurely pans of the sunset over the rooftops of Mumbai with close ups of the birds and monkeys that roam the gardens of the palatial Jaipur hotel. Pinto makes a beautiful Trishna/Tess but she doesn't get a huge amount to do other than look very sad, whereas Ahmed's transition from sweet, charming boyfriend to selfish, lazy tyrant is rather too swift, even bearing in mind the revelations that precede this shift. Still, Trishna remains a compelling film, and  almost encourages me to give Tess another read. Almost.

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