For those who want to see old wine in a new, cracked, and corked bottle, this one’s for you: Trishna, the devastating and haunting new film from director Michael Winterbottom, takes the classic tale of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and transplants it into modern India. The story’s essential themes of emotional dependence, class warfare, societal subject positions, and, most of all, sex and gender, are retained in a gritty adaptation that feels both raw and fantastic at the same time.
Trishna (Frieda Pinto) is a poor village girl in Rajasthan who supports her family by working at a local hotel where she serves drinks to tourists. A band of British boys comes to town and one of them named Jay (Riz Ahmed) becomes infatuated with Trishna. Jay and Trishna are polar opposites: he is rich, she is poor; he is educated, she is a simpleton; he goes for what he wants and gets it; she doesn’t even know what she wants and reaches only for the next sunrise.
Soon the two embark upon a relationship that at first seems ideal: is Jay the knight in a white Mercedes that has come to rescue the poor waif from a life of unending servitude? He takes her away, first to Bombay, where they cohabit as a couple, and then to a rural hotel in the backlands of India where the final act takes place. All the while, Trishna is allowed to escape poverty and enjoy a life that she had no knowledge of in her family’s village. But it all comes at a steep and heavy price.
To be sure, there is much that will shock viewers in the film. The movie has several sex scenes that depict not only lust, but a depravity that follows Jay’s transformation from sensitive lover to hedonistic sadist. Riz Ahmed plays Jay with conviction, as does Pinto as the heroine, though their distinct lack of chemistry both helps and hurts the movie. They sometimes seem to be two casual acquaintances that happen to know each other quite well, but whose relationship never moves beyond exchanging pleasantries until Jay decides he wants intercourse. It is a relationship of extremes, just as this is a movie about rich vs. poor, male vs. female, and life vs. death. If only the “versus” could be removed and the two extremes could learn to coexist.