Michael Winterbottom’s contemporary adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, borrows the key events from the classic 19th century English novel and places them in modern-day India. For anybody not familiar with the story, the protagonist of Hardy’s novel is Tess – a rural peasant girl who meets, and gradually falls in love with, a man named Angel Clare. This places Tess in a predicament, as earlier in the novel she was raped (or seduced?) by another man (Alec D’Urberville), and since society at the time was highly critical of any woman having sex before marriage, Tess is torn between telling Angel the truth and keeping it buried. When Angel confesses to her that he has already lost his virginity, Tess takes the plunge and tells him what happened. Reacting badly to the news, Angel leaves her, and when he finally realises his mistake and comes back to retrieve her he finds that out of sheer desperation and poverty, Tess has ended up back with Alec. In one last attempt to prove her love to Angel, Tess murders Alec, but the consequences of this act are inescapable.
Other than the change in location, the second key difference in Trishna from the source text is that Winterbottom has chosen to fuse Alec and Angel into one character – Jay (Riz Ahmed). This decision was effective in some ways, but not in others. It has been argued that Alec and Angel, while appearing to be vastly different people on the surface, are in fact two sides of the same coin. They both represent the repression of women by men, constructing their own idealised impression of Tess without taking any time to get to know who she really is. By merging these two characters, Winterbottom reminds us that people may not be so easily identifiable as good/evil. When Jay begins to treat Trishna (Freida Pinto) increasingly badly following her confession, we realise that he is simply beginning to overtly express the same desires he has always had – that is, to control Trishna. Throughout the film she is expected to serve him, both in her capacity as a waitress at the hotel his father owns as well as within their relationship. Even before her confession, Jay maintains control over Trishna by speaking on her behalf around his friends, and makes her expected position as ‘housewife’ quite clear when he gives her a tour of their new flat, taking particular care to point out the kitchen as the place where she will be spending most of her time.
Both book and film address the issue of male double standards. Jay reacts with anger when he finds out that Trishna kept a pregnancy and abortion secret from him, but has a sexual past of his own which Trishna immediately forgives him for when he eventually gets round to mentioning it. This strand of the story is much less effective in the film than in the novel – partly due to the merging of two characters, but also because we aren’t given as much of an insight into Trishna’s emotions as would be preferable. In fact, the film as a whole fails to create much of an emotional impact until the later portions of the film where Jay’s behaviour becomes more and more cruel. Until that point, events are either far too slow-paced (with an awful lot of camera time being dedicated to the local scenery), or they cut from one thing to another too quickly, not lingering enough on the characters themselves. This absence of characterisation and emotion isn’t helped by the fact that the actors reportedly improvised much of their own dialogue.
Trishna’s use of repetition is highly effective. Earlier in the film, sequences show our protagonist at work at the hotel, waiting on customers and on Jay. Similar sequences are repeated later in the film, cutting between multiple occasions where Trishna is seen delivering food to him and then being expected to perform sexual acts. This highlights how their relationship has changed and yet in many ways remains the same. While he stops acting pleasantly towards her, we realise that she is still ‘serving’ him, and that she always has been doing.
The decision to change the film’s setting to contemporary India works well. India is going through similar changes now to how England was then, with a similar divide appearing between rich and poor, urban and rural. Urbanisation is depicted negatively in both stories, since it is represented by the male character. Jay’s “English-ness” is also emphasised: through his accent, and the constant use of words like “mate”. The westernization of India is another indicator of urbanisation, and we see its negative influence again in the clothes that Jay buys for Trishna in order to ogle her in them. Even the Lord’s Prayer chanted in English at the end of the film takes on sinister connotations when intercut with a tragic ending.
As it stands, the first half of the film has little impact on the viewer. While the final sequences of the film were extremely emotional, a tighter script would have certainly made this a much better watch than it was. Generally, Trishna is unsuccessful in meeting the high standards set by Thomas Hardy’s incredibly forward-thinking novel.