Like Woody Allen, Michael Winterbottom turns out a film a year, sometimes more than one; has fave actors (is Steve Coogan his Tony Roberts?); and hops around genres. He’s far more adventurous than Allen, though, seeming to revel in being a moving target when choosing projects. In 2004-06 alone, he zipped from non-porno porn (9 Songs) to postmodern mash-up (A Cock and Bull Story) to political docudrama (The Road to Guantánamo). But unlike Allen, in his resulting buffet of work I can’t think of any empty calories, just dishes of varying meatiness. The latest, Trishna, is a love story, and if on the surface it appears slight and built from old bones, there’s still some meat left and maybe even a bit of marrow if you’re patient enough.
The old bones come from Thomas Hardy, a writer Winterbottom has adapted before – Jude and The Claim – and here it’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In transporting Hardy’s classic of class, gender roles and 19th-century industrial change to contemporary India, Tess becomes Trishna, her two lovers are conflated into one, and the social change, globalisation, is equally or even more massive. This isn’t The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s wistful harking back to Empire, but an edgier examination of its consequences. There is a link, though. Globalisation means tourism, which means hotels, and the ones here are the grand old ladies of Rajasthan. Jay (Riz Ahmed), born and brought up in Britain, has been despatched to India by his immigrant father to manage the family’s hotel, er, empire. A spoilt, second-generation rich kid, he’s reluctant and excited at the same time, but when he spots Trishna (Freida Pinto), a village girl of breathtaking beauty, things don’t look so bad after all. He engineers a meeting and they fall in love.
Then the trouble starts, and the first intimation of that meatiness. Both Trishna and Jay are dislocated characters: she’s a country girl transplanted into urban life and wealth; he’s a British Asian grappling with his identity. For him, she’s a pure, close-to-the-earth Indian woman who excites the Henry Higgins in him as well as his hormones; for her, he offers opportunity and an exciting life. Despite shared cultural roots, though, their values and expectations are vastly different or not understood, and the subsequent confusion leads to confl ict of tragic proportions. Straddling documentary and drama as he often does, Winterbottom mixes in non-actors with actors and uses improvised dialogue to achieve a feeling of realism. Mostly it works, except that Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), although a gorgeous-looking Trishna, seems almost too gorgeous beside the rural people playing her family.
Ahmed (Four Lions) fares better among the energetic new generation of Bollywood film-makers Jay hooks up with. The documentary element is at its most vivid in Marcel Zyskind’s camera work, capturing India’s hurtling tempo with the rush of Mumbai, and the numerous speeding, juddering travelling shots that have become a Winterbottom trademark, particularly in his films set in the Third World. This director has looked at the personal effects of globalism before (In This World, The Road to Guantánamo), but not at this level of intimacy. Trishna is so intimate, in fact, that at times the psychology is very internalised and hard to read. Only on reflection do we get some clarity on what prompted the characters’ behaviour and decisions. It’s possible this may be to underscore the depth of the conflict, and how confusing it is even to the characters, but it can be frustrating and disengaging. It may also be a weakness in subtextual performance.
Compounding this is Trishna’s passivity. Culturally, it’s entirely credible, and responsible for much of Jay’s subsequent behaviour, but it does stop us getting inside her head. More seriously, that absence of point of view makes the melodrama of the finale a shock. Tess fans won’t be surprised, but others might find it unconvincing. But perhaps that’s the point – and the marrow in the bone – a deliberate jolt to a modern Western viewer, now accustomed to feisty, active heroines, into realising the small and hidden costs of globalism.
TRISHNA, directed by Michael Winterbottom.