Michael Winterbottom’s TRISHNA is sumptuous. It adapts Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to a contemporary Indian setting and in the process retains the essential beauty of the tragedy while stripping from it the nostalgia and romanticism to which period filmmaking is prone. The past is everywhere in the images – the colonial edifices, the forts and temples, the persistence of traditional modes of dress – but so is the wear and tear upon the past, the physical deterioration and decay to which all that we call beautiful is prone.
Roman Polanski‘s Tess had a similar lushness, but its beauties persisted in the mind as sentiment precisely because of the historical nostalgia that it provoked. That, in a subtle way, undermined the tragic texture that he borrowed from Hardy, that of beauty, of people and places, that may mask an underlying unhappiness, dysfunction, social repression, or moral ugliness, but that will in any case deteriorate in the fullness of time if it is not snuffed out in an instant. Winterbottom recognizes and adopts the same texture but by making it contemporary emphasizes the transcience of the beautiful and the arbitrariness with which it can be both encountered and lost. In this context, the social and the moral factors – most obviously of class, gender and imperial heritage – are harder to overlook, and they do not require overtly didactic or political filmmaking to impress themselves upon us.
And so the beauty is both thought provoking and heartbreaking, most particularly in the figure of Freida Pinto’s Trishna, who is so remarkably attractive that one can hardly imagine her not existing in the world, yet knows, if one is aware of the story or simply senses its inevitability, that her particular beauty will cease with a premature abruptness. Hardy’s Tess was hanged, as was Natasia Kinski’s in the Polanski film, and in neither of those cases did we see the act. This does not seem a likely outcome in the milieau in which TRISHNA is set, nor does it feel as though the fatal moment will be relegated to the imagination, so part of the tragic texture of Winterbottom’s film is not being certain how her life and her image and her beauty will be lost to us, but knowing that it will be.
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