Filmmakers never have been able to resist indulging their love for the good ol' English canon by churning out their own rendering of classic novels. Last year was no exception, with the likes of Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre and Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights hitting our screens. But while these were both pretty decent efforts, overall they provided little more than an opportunity for the well-versed viewer to compare them to previous outings and mull over their treatment of the source material.
As such, the classic novel adaptation has become little more than a type of genre flick, in which we are invited to watch a director wrestle with a well-worn story. Transposing Thomas Hardy's tragic novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles from Victorian Wessex to modern day India, as Michael Winterbottom has done with Trishna, appears on the surface to be little more than another gimmicky relocation of a classic tale. This film, however, manages to do justice to Hardy's themes whilst carving out a discernibly different kind of work that can be watched and enjoyed with fresh eyes.
Hardy was writing in a period of dramatic ideological and economic transition. Victorian censoriousness was still grappling with post-Reformation libertinism while the Industrial Revolution was encroaching upon and modernising the rural world. Tess is a heroine caught in the crossfire of warring moralities. Winterbottom deftly reinterprets the character as Trishna (Freda Pinto), a teenager from a poor family, who is torn between the traditional values of her homeland in rural Rajasthan and the social and sexual liberation she later finds in Mumbai.
Winterbottom has stated that he chose India because it currently bears similar ideological divides to those of nineteenth century Britain, but he in fact paints a more complex and modern picture. Far from being the 'pure woman' of Hardy's novel, whose downfall took place in spite of her moral rectitude, Trishna is a conflicted character who is grounded in the old world but drawn to the bright lights of the new.
In place of the pious Angel Clare, who Tess falls in love with, and the rakish Alec d'Urberville, who robs her of her virtue, we are given Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed), a conflation of both characters. A British-born rich kid, he comes to Rajasthan to work for his father's chain of hotels and takes a shine to Trishna. The two begin to fall in love, but he unwittingly leads her to disgrace herself by succumbing to his advances. Growing tired of hiding their relationship, he suggests they leave for Mumbai, where they can live together, free from scorn.
Although perhaps a little insensitive, Jay is every bit the honest and loving Angel Clare of the narrative, until a return to Rajasthan leads his darker, d'Urbevillian side to show itself. Managing one of his father's hotels, a former harem, he revels in subordinating Trishna to his depraved appetites, until she is forced to take revenge.
Unlike Hardy's novel of black-and-white morality embodied by wholesome heroines and seedy villains, these modernised characters have internalised these conflicts. Winterbottom's adaptation insists upon its modern setting, and refuses to impose Hardy's hundred-year-old dynamic onto it. Trishna's downfall isn't a journey from honour to disgrace, but a process by which she is isolated between two different notions of piety, and taken advantage of by her malevolent lover. Not only does this prevent Winterbottom from casting aspersions on traditional or indeed modern values, it also makes for a far more convincing appropriation of the novel.
Although Winterbottom is given a writing credit, the script was apparently little more than a set of vague outlines from which the actors were expected to improvise the dialogue. Luckily, the leads are more than up to the task, and their off-the-cuff performances lend well to portraying a tentative courtship between two different cultures. The early scenes in which Jay has to overcome the language barrier to get Trishna's attention are a naturalistic joy, yet even as things take a more dramatic turn, Pinto and particularly Ahmed remain startlingly believable.
Their improvised riffs help to cast the characters into entirely different moulds, while the embrace of the Indian aesthetic allows the setting to stake new ground within the story as well. Whether Winterbottom is diving head first into the throng of the city or nestling the camera in the rugged hills of the countryside, his loose and intuitive style takes each locale as it is, capturing it with intelligence and warmth. The soundtrack, featuring a selection of original Bollywood numbers, bounces off the visuals wonderfully, whilst the incorporation of an on-screen translation of the Hindi lyrics proves a novel and expressive addition. Rather than treating India as a mere stand-in for old-world England, Winterbottom attends to it dutifully, helping to create the film's distinctive flavour.
Whether you've read Tess or not, love a good adaptation or usually find them cosy, generic tripe, there's plenty to enjoy with Trishna. Instead of just guising an old story in contemporary garb, Winterbottom truly reinterprets it and in doing so finds resonance with a modern audience. Most impressively, it is an adaptation that stands firmly on its own two feet, and graces us with some inimitable and elegant performances.