By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com October 22, 2011 at 7:28AM
Over his career, Michael Winterbottom has hopped frequently from genre to genre, from subject matter to subject matter, rarely covering the same territory twice. But one of the few things he has returned to is the work of Thomas Hardy. The late 19th century British author has so far inspired two of the director's films: 1995's "Jude," an adaptation of "Jude the Obscure" with Kate Winslet, and "The Claim," a version of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" moved to a Californian mountain Western setting.
Both are very strong, firmly in tune with Hardy's bleak originals, so when it was announced that Winterbottom was going back to the well for "Trishna," a loose adaptation of "Tess of the D'Ubervilles" (a Hardy novel previously done by Roman Polanski in "Tess" and more recently, a BBC miniseries starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne), for a version set in contemporary India, hope was high that it'd be another home run for the filmmaker. Unfortunately, those hopes have come to nothing; "Trishna" is as disappointing a film as any that Winterbottom has made.
Jay (Riz Ahmed from "Shifty" and "Four Lions," among many others), is the British-raised son of an Indian hotel magnate, who's moved back to the homeland to work in the family trade. At one hotel in Rajasthan, he notices Trishna ("Slumdog Millionaire" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" star Freida Pinto), a waitress from a poor family. When her family's livelihood, an expensive Jeep, is written off in an accident, injuring Trishna and her father, Jay steps in, offering her a high-paying job in a hotel in state capital Jaipur. While there, and across the running time, the two circle each other, sparking off a relationship that can only end in tragedy.
The director (who's also credited with the screenplay, although the dialogue was largely improvised), his first solo writing job since "9 Songs") has made some pretty radical changes to the source material -- not only has he shifted the setting halfway across the world (almost the only way you could bring it up to date and still make it work), but also cutting many of the characters and plot elements, most notably combining the two male leads of the novel, Alec and Angel, into Ahmed's Jay. Neither change is particularly problematic; it's easy to see why the decision was made. Instead, the problem comes from Winterbottom seemingly forgetting what made his previous adaptations work.
The most obvious roadblock is the casting. Ahmed is typically excellent, charming and likable at first, something of a Prince Charming, but with a controlling element in his persona which becomes more and more prominent as time goes on. Unfortunately, his counterpart can't match him. Tess is always a tricky role -- she's a passive character, pushed through a selection of suffering like a von Trier protagonist, so it needs a really strong actress to make it work. Pinto is, clearly, one of the most beautiful women in the world, and maybe the only actress who could have got the film financed, but she's also yet to demonstrate that she's got any real screen presence; even in the most dramatic scenes, she virtually fades into the wallpaper. In her hands, Trishna is such an opaque blank, so devoid of personality, that it's hard to care much what happens to her one way or the other.
But, in all fairness, Winterbotttom doesn't give her very much to work with. For a start, while his eye for modern-day India is more authentic and less flashy than Danny Boyle's in 'Slumdog,' he doesn't really set up the world that well. It's a major plot point that even in this day and age, a relationship between Trishna and Jay would be frowned up on in Rajasthan, not in Bombay, but it's not made clear until late in the film, and never really explained why, which means that the stakes feel minimal throughout.
For the second occasion in recent memory ("Like Crazy" was the most recent offender), the semi-improvised approach has proven to be something of a self-thwarting one -- it might give it some degree of authenticity, but it also makes it, frankly, kind of boring; functional, sure, but no one has anything very interesting to say. And ultimately, all the authenticity in the world doesn't mean a thing if there's no life to it.
And that's the great issue here; there's no life. "Jude" and "The Claim" have their flaws, but they get the most important thing right about the source material -- the fire in the belly. Here, everything seems timid and passionless, Winterbottom is more interested in picturesque locations than making it seem that his characters care about anything. It's a flip of the coin to another film bowing tonight at the BFI London Film Festival -- Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights." Arnold takes a similar approach to Winterbottom, a bold reinvention of a classic that places just as great an emphasis on its environment as its characters. But where Arnold uses it as an extension of the savagery of Heathcliff and co, here you feel like you're watching Winterbottom's holiday video, that happens to have some actors wandering in and out of it.
By the end, it's drifting into self parody, much of the last 40 minutes of the film being made up of endless shots of Trishna bringing Jay food on a tray. It all looks as good as you'd expect, Winterbottom's usual DoP Marcel Zyskind delivering some glorious work in places. And again, the music is terrific, with fine work from Shigeru Umebayashi (with songs from Amit Trivedi). But the meat of the film is sadly, a tedious misstep for a director who, even when he's experimented in the past, has generally come up with something more interesting than this. It is, however, still better than "9 Songs" [D]