Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" is updated to modern India in "Trishna," a subdued but well-observed adaptation from director Michael Winterbottom. The subtitle of Hardy's novel was "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented," and that's the approach taken here.
Freida Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") plays the title character, a dirt-poor girl from a desperate family. She meets a rich young man, Jay, who takes a sympathetic interest in her, and the evolution of their relationship with everything it implies about the influence of money and class forms the story.
Winterbottom gives a bright panorama of Indian life, from the agrarian countryside to the tumult of Jaipur and the sophistication of Mumbai. As a traditional culture in the midst of the 21st century, India allows many of the 19th century social conventions, described by Hardy, to be transferred more or less intact. Moreover, the naked simplicity of Trishna, as played by Pinto, feels almost like something from another time.
The interaction between Trishna and the young rich man is a contrast between poverty and privilege, but also between the old and the new, the rural and the urban, the transparent and the occluded. Pinto's performance has an affecting purity, but Ahmed is impressive, as well, for the way he can make an audience uneasy, even when he is acting benevolent.
We can see Trishna it's clear who she is, what she wants, what's true and special about her. But there's something in Ahmed's performance that suggests that Jay either doesn't see these things or is willfully averting his eyes from those depths he himself doesn't possess. It makes for an unsettling dynamic that Winterbottom explores in uncompromising detail.
Three stars (out of four)
Cast: Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed. In English and in Hindi with English subtitles.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Rated R (Bloody knife violence, some sex)