Class privilege and sexual politics are inextricably linked in Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s blunt, self-consciously brutal, and rather loose updating of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Most of the film’s brutality is reserved for the final half hour, but it casts a retrospective pall over the balance of the movie, turning events that registered with a modicum of subtlety into little more than a setup for Winterbottom’s hammering home of tired, if not inaccurate, observations about upper-class men and their sexual treatment of lower-class women.
The class angle is heightened by moving Hardy’s source material from southern England to contemporary India. With his restless camerawork, Winterbottom paints both rural (and especially) urban India as a place where extreme scarcity exists side by side with enormous wealth, the two seeming to bleed together in DP Marcel Zyskind’s fluid visuals. It’s a neat analogue for the position of Trishna (Freida Pinto), a 19-year-old girl living in rural poverty who catches the eye of wealthy scion Jay (Riz Ahmed), a sort of amalgam of the two principal male characters in the Hardy original.
Jay offers our heroine a job at his father’s hotel and, one night, inevitably seduces her. Eventually he quits the hotel business and whisks her off to Mumbai, the one place where they can live openly as lovers, class difference and sexual puritanism momentarily erased. Of course, this suspension of class inequality is only illusory and, even as Trishna begins transforming herself culturally into an upper-crust lady, Winterbottom everywhere suggests the tenuousness of her position. These scenes set in Mumbai are the film’s best, full of the tension that comes from one’s uncertain financial position in the world, shrewdly evocative of the form of sexual slavery that comes from unequal class status while never overplaying their hand.
Unfortunately, Winterbottom can only hold back for so long and, in the film’s final act, in which the couple return to another hotel and resume the outward employer/employee guise while fucking on the sly, things get predictably, well, Winterbottom-y. The director’s point is that external forms of power interactions dictate the inner life of relationships and, before long, he’s illustrating his thesis with tired and unnecessary imagery such as a close-up of Trishna’s contorted, tear-streaked face as Jay fucks her from behind like a true Brahmin.
At moments like these, we recall earlier incidents of male aggression that seemed somewhat superfluous (threatening men on the streets of Jaipur, a skeezy dance producer who seems poised to take over the Angel Clare role from the novel before simply disappearing) as building to the film’s confirmation of its simplistic worldview. Ultimately, we don’t need to see the dance producer exploit Trishna because Jay can do that just fine. (And he seemed such a nice boy!) But there’s little doubt that if Trishna hadn’t left Mumbai, the other man would have done just that.
Because we all know that all any privileged dude wants to do is use pretty lower-class women as their de facto sex slaves. None of which is to say that these aren’t serious problems that occur in real life, but that in Winterbottom’s typically heavy-handed treatment, the top-down imposition of inevitable violence simplifies what even the film itself had earlier acknowledged were a far more complicated set of dynamics.