1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
Despite almost universal acclaim, the Thomas Hardy novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" has not fared particularly well in its seven small and big screen adaptations. The most successful and well-received of all of them (Roman Polanski's 1979 "Tess") won three Oscars but bore only a passing resemblance to the novel. Like all the other productions, it took a huge amount of artistic liberty with key points of Hardy's original text.
If this is such a grand book, why would everyone want to change it so radically? Perhaps because it's a major downer and is borderline unfilmable; not every great novel can be made into a movie or mini-series.
British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is ideally suited to "Tess" -- a statement that should not be construed as a compliment. A crafter of many past unimpressive, inconsequential and depressing movies, Winterbottom does deserve some minor credit here for adapting his version of "Tess" for modern times and setting it in India, where the novel's class warfare underpinnings mesh well with that country's still-ongoing sociological "caste" mindset.
Boiled down, caste is the clear distinction of society based on income and lineage. Although there are some gray areas, it essentially prohibits fraternization between the haves and have-nots. Think of it as an old school version of the current One Percent/Occupy imbroglio.
The biggest among the many problems with "Trishna" is Winterbottom's combining of the two main male characters (Alec and Angel) into one (Riz Ahmed as Jay). This single change totally obliterates the story's equilibrium and turns the movie into something more akin to the Julia Roberts thriller "Sleeping with the Enemy."
After a traffic accident that injures her and cuts off her farming family's sole source of income, Trishna (Freida Pinto) is offered a job by Jay to work as a maid at his father's posh hotel located far from her peasant home in the sticks. Following strict social protocol and procedure, the wealthy Jay asks the poor father's formal permission, which is granted. Someone needs to put food on the table.
It is abundantly clear to everyone that Jay's motives regarding Trishna are romantic in nature and he only made the offer to her family to get her away from them and onto his own more comfortable, opulent turf. Raised in England, Jay is sharp, charming and, as slowly revealed, sinisterly draconian. He eventually gets Trishna to drop her guard and they become a couple. For a brief while, she sees what life is like on the other side of the tracks.
Try as he might, Jay comes to the conclusion that he's not cut out for the hotel business and despite being raised in a modern Western culture, he can't let go of his arcane Eastern mindset regarding women. He "loves" Trishna as long as it is on his own rigid terms. As soon as she starts displaying anything resembling free will, he becomes a different man -- a complete pig.
The arc/transformation of the Jay character is interesting -- albeit in a repellent way -- and Ahmed acts it to pieces -- but in a good way. The huge issue here is with Pinto, a beautiful woman who probably got this gig thanks to her far-more expressive turn in the distantly similar "Slumdog Millionaire." One can see why Winterbottom cast Pinto in the title role, and boy did she ever fail to deliver.
With two facial expressions that are slight variations on confused and bored, Pinto totally lacks the passion, verve and emotional range the role demands. She slogs through the film as if on Prozac and despite the considerable pains and abuse levied on her character, we can never fully rally behind her or her cause; and it's an easy cause to back.
Even when viewed in dramatically tragic terms, Winterbottom's choice with the ending is not only monumentally downbeat, it is complete nonsense and unnecessarily punishing for the audience. It's a sad end to a colossal waste of two plus hours of otherwise valuable time. (IFC)