Michael Winterbottom’s third Thomas Hardy adaptation after Jude (1996 – Jude The Obscure) and The Claim (2000 – The Mayor Of Casterbridge) transposes Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern-day India but while the cinematography is gorgeous and the scenery frequently breathtaking, it’s let down by a turgid pace and yet another lifeless performance from Freida Pinto.
Pinto plays Trishna, a quiet, poor Rajasthanian girl forced to become the sole breadwinner for her family after her father is involved in a car accident. She meets Jay (Riz Ahmed), a wealthy Brit touring India with his friends. He offers her a job at one of his father’s luxury hotels in Jaipur, a move which helps him press his romantic interest.
Eventually Jay persuades Trishna to move to Mumbai with him so that he can pursue his ambitions as a film producer and for a while they’re happy. But a twist of fate forces them to return to Jaipur where their relationship sours and the previously affectionate Jay becomes increasingly cruel and distant.
Setting the story in contemporary India is an interesting choice and allows Winterbottom to contrast rural naivety and the fast-paced life of the big city. It’s also a ripe and appropriate setting for the themes of class and tradition (Trishna and Jay’s relationship would be frowned upon in Rajasthan but not in more cosmopolitan Mumbai) and beautifully photographed by Marcel Zyskind.
However, it’s crippled by a muddled script and two central performances which fail to hit the mark. The most prominent problem is Pinto, whose frustrating inertness fails to give any life to Trishna’s character.
Trishna herself is characterised by frustrating passivity, something which doesn’t sit well in a modern setting where she has many opportunities to escape her fate. She nods dumb acquiescence at every suggestion and follows Jay without so much as a complaint like an anthropomorphic sheep. It’s a role in which some subtlety and nuance could have revealed a multi-layered and complex character but Pinto’s bland and vacant performance never gives a hint of anything going on behind the eyes.
Riz Ahmed fares better but he’s hamstrung by a script which requires him to go from concerned, attentive partner to mustachio-twirling pantomime villain within the space of a few scenes, not helped by the total lack of any chemistry with Pinto, which leads to dialogue which feels stilted and forced.
To make matters worse, the film moves at a speed which is in danger of being overtaken by continental drift with endless shots of Pinto walking, walking, walking and repetitive scenes in which nothing happens making an intriguing concept terminally dull.