Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New Release Review: Trishna (Michael Winterbottom, 2012)

Trishna is the new film from British director, Michael Winterbottom, the notorious chameleon whose films have been proven to be wildly diverse in both quality and genre. His most recent films, The Trip (2011) and The Killer Inside Me (2010) are demonstrative of this. He is perhaps most renowned for the 2002 Palme d’Or contender, 24 Hour Party People. Here, he makes his third adaption of a Thomas Hardy novel – Jude (1996), adapted from Jude the Obscure and The Claim (2000), adapted from The Mayor of Casterbridge preceded Trishna– with his re-imagining of Tess of the D’Ubervilles, set (and shot on location) in modern day India.

Trishna (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) is an impoverished young woman living in Rajasthan. She supports her family by working as a servant at a hotel, and it is here that she catches the eye of Jay (Riz Ahmed, Four Lions). He is accompanying some friends on a boys-only holiday and the group chooses to stay at the hotel where Trishna works. He is handsome, charming and wealthy – and following the trip he would be remaining in Bombay to work at one of his father’s hotels.

It is never really made clear what he wants to do, but what is clear is that he isn’t cut out for hotel management. But, seeming to care about Trishna and her family, though clearly desiring her body more than her company, he offers her a well-paid job at his hotel, and she makes the journey. He is kind to her, introduces her to his father, and even arranges for her to take classes.

For reasons that ultimately result in Trishna bringing shame on her family, she one night flees Bombay. These can be guessed a long way out, and it was unfathomable to me how predictable the film was during this stretch. Outcast by her family, she takes care of her ailing aunt, before the return of Jay, who she believes she is in love with, means that she finds herself in Mumbai and living a life of luxury. But incidents and secrets from their past, and Jay’s sudden change in attitude, sprout up to be the catalysts for the unraveling of the romance.

The film is fraught with problems. One of the central issues is the pacing, and this has very evident origins in the poorly conceived screenplay, which moves very quickly but doesn’t actually delve into anything with any depth. Along the way there are fleeting introductions to Trishna’s family, Jay’s father, and to some of Jay’s acquaintances in the filmmaking industry. While the former introduction meant that we got a sense of her family’s quality of living, they are rather trite, while the latter built up Trishna’s independence – a desire to dance for film and music videos – but then never went anywhere with it. 

The story and characterizations remain surface-level only, despite the strong themes (how emotionally crippling this chain-of-events would have been for Trishna is relayed effectively in one scene only) and a mounting series of what should be emotionally affecting circumstances, and there is no chemistry to speak of between Pinto and Ahmed.

Another feature that affects the pacing is the woeful editing, which becomes nothing short of an irritating distraction. Trishna is over-edited, for no semblance of purpose whatsoever, with barely a single shot lasting longer than a couple of seconds. There is some inventive camerawork, and the location is stunning – but these captures are never given a chance to leave an impact. Every sequence seems to be shot from multiple angles and Winterbottom cuts hyperactively between each. These different angles add nothing, but repel a viewer from ever feeling intimately connected to the characters.

There is a sequence where Trishna goes out with friends from college. Not wanting to break curfew, she sets out through the streets alone and ends up being harassed by some men. At that moment Jay rides in on his motorcycle and whisks her away. His business there is never explained – he knew she was out with friends, but him turning up is both ridiculously convenient and a bit creepy – and the scene, which could have had some tension, is resolved in a development that can only make one roll their eyes.

Though the story is flat and predictable for the most part, not to mention familiar, it does take a surprisingly dark turn in the second half, which would have been affecting, if we weren’t already so distanced from the characters. There is so much time wasted during the middle of the film, and especially the scenes in Mumbai. Cue to five or six shots of the beautiful city – each lasting mere seconds and feeling like a slideshow designed for tourism purposes - and then one of Pinto and Ahmed in bed. That’s about it. For a film that stretches close to two hours, it could have done with, dare I say it, some more cuts.

Pinto, though she has very few spoken lines, is effective at conveying Trishna’s mousy, naïve and innocent personality, but her character is so passive and submissive to Jay throughout the film, the dramatic moments, which are weakly justified anyway, have no impact. Jay, which features Ahmed in a very different turn to his comedic one in Four Lions, is also a thinly drawn and lifeless character. 

None of the significant events are given enough attention to arouse an emotional response. Trishna's story is tragic, sure, but more is required than having the pretty protagonist repeatedly bring trays in to her lounging lover and then succumbing to his progressively demeaning sexual requests. She is a victim of passion and circumstance, but Winterbottom's tale feels shallow and all too familiar. Hard to recommend.

My Rating: ★ (D+) 

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