Friday, July 13, 2012

Michael Winterbottom's India-set, Hardy-inspired TRISHNA gives Pinto a plum role

Best not to make too much of the fact that TRISHNA -- the latest endeavor from British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom -- is based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. It's been more than fifty years since I've read that book (as a high-school student, I read it too soon) and over two decades since seeing the earlier filmed version from Polanski. Because that version ran over three hours, it was able to be more faithful (but not nearly enough) to Hardy's work; it would take an eight-hour miniseries, done well, to do the novel justice (this four-hour version starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne may come closer to the mark).

No matter: Hardy's theme -- how class, together with the place of women in society, affects our lives -- travels, it turns out, quite well to the sub-continent. (Just as England was going through major economic and social change at the end of the 19th Century, India is going through its own version currently.) Who better than a Brit to explore all this in a country his own country colonized, to the former's detriment on many levels. (And betterment on a few? Surely the effects of this colonization cannot have been entirely negative?) Class struggle and the genuine empowerment of women were and are still necessary in England, just as they remain needed pretty much all over the globe, and Winterbottom (shown above) grabs and runs with this idea, weaving it into his story with strong threads. Thomas Hardy himself is the only writer credited to the film on its IMDB site, but this seems disingenuous; this long-dead titan certainly did not write the dialog we hear, which according to an interview/review in the Village Voice, the actors often improvised from a draft that Winterbottom himself had written.

For me, Trishna (the character and the movie itself) succeeds mightily in its endeavor to bring these themes artfully to life. And it does so on the back (and the gorgeous face) of the beautiful and graceful actress, Freida Pinto, who here has her best role so far. After her debut in the over-rated Slumdog Millionaire; her lovely, brief stint in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; her work-to-no-avail in (and as) the tiresome Miral; a pointless role in the tiresome-in-another-manner Immortals; and despite even her satisfactory work as the necessary woman in the terrific but practically all-male blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- finally, a filmmaker has made glorious use of this extraordinarily delicate and subdued performer, shown above and below.

Ms Pinto is rather a passive actress, whose great beauty never needs pushing. In the role of Trishna, an Indian country girl of poor parents who attracts the eye of the wealthy British-educated son (Riz Ahmed, below) of an Indian entrepreneur (Roshan Seth), with Winterbottom's help, she uses this passivity to remarkable effect. It becomes, finally, a kind of passionate strength.

Ahmed, after a few turns ranging from startling to impressive in films like The Road to Guantanamo, Rage, Four Lions and Centurion, also has a role that should goose him further into leading man status. He has buffed up some in the interim and proves very sexy here. Initially, he appears to care for Trishna, yet his character, as much as hers, is trapped in India's own cultural/societal class-conscious slavery. Because he has never had to work, to test himself, to actually fend for himself, he's weak in a manner than Trishna could never be. And yet, she knows her place, just as he knows his.

What eventually happens is as shocking as it is believable, and Ms Pinto rises to the awful occasion in a manner that's just about perfect: still somehow passive, even in an act that seems anything but. Having cast his film so well, using both professionals and real people who simply play the roles they do in their day job, Winter-bottom also allows them to improvise some of their dialog. The result, whether it's in the posh hotel where Trishna begins her "career" or the Bollywood dance class she joins and proves good at, carries a sense of reality that something like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can't come near (and probably wouldn't want to).

Trishna, 108 minutes, from IFC FIlms, opens today, Friday, July 13, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.  It will open in the Los Angeles area later this month at several of the Laemmle locations. For couch potatoes, it begins its IFC VOD run next week on Friday, July 20.

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