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“Trishna”: This is Only a “Tess”?

May 3, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t the only upcoming movie set at an Indian inn. The prolific and always-surprising British director Michael Winterbottom has loosely adapted Thomas Hardy’s tragic 19th century novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles and transported it to modern-day Mumbai and its outskirts in the ravishing and riveting Trishna, which screened at the Montclair Film Festival last night and opens nationally in July.

The story starts at a remote yet posh hotel, where the blind owner’s ne’er-do-well son (the deceptively charismatic Riz Ahmed) falls for the titular peasant girl (Slumdog Millionaire‘s luminous Freida Pinto), an aspiring dancer whom he’s hired to work as a servant. And as much as Winterbottom departs from Hardy’s original story (not to mention Roman Polanski’s haunting 1979 movie with Nastassja Kinski), you still know this cross-class/caste romance isn’t going to end well.

Winterbottom—who’s done everything from dark dramas (Angelina Jolie’s A Mighty Heart) to balls-out comedies (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) and shocking documentaries (The Road to Guantanamo)—continues to amaze with his range. Next, he’ll reteam with frequent collaborator Steve Coogan (The Trip, 24 Hour Party People) for the porn biopic The King of Soho and satirize the world economic crisis with Jack Black in Bailout. He previously did an effective, faithful adaptation of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure in 1996’s Jude, with Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet. Trishna is some of his strongest work to date. It’s become a cliché to praise films made in India for their colorful costumes, scenery and music, but Winterbottom manages to capture a sense of hooray-for-Bollywood joy (especially in Pinto’s dance sequences) without losing sight of the story’s downbeat soul.

The real surprise here, though, is Pinto. She was perfectly pleasant in Slumdog but didn’t get swept up in the film’s Oscar tsunami. Since then, filmmakers like Woody Allen and Tarsem Singh haven’t seemed to know what to do with her, typecasting her as a love object in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Immortals. (And she was outshined by a bunch of monkeys in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.) Here, she shows heretofore unforeseen depth and darkness. Mark my words: If she keeps taking on roles as challenging as Trishna, Pinto’s going to explode.

What’s your top Michael Winterbottom film? Anybody care to stand up for Welcome to Sarajevo, Code 46, 9 Songs or The Killer Inside Me?

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