With its sexy, controversial themes and class consciousness, there's tremendous present-day relevance in Thomas Hardy's tragedy "Tess of the d'Urbervilles."
In "Trishna," director-writer Michael Winterbottom transports that Victorian tale of lost innocence and carnal disgrace to modern India, where rural women are still treated as chattel and illicit intercourse can spell lifelong family shame. While the film never delves deep enough into its characters' emotions to be truly spellbinding, it's well worth seeing.
Freida Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire,""Rise of the Planet of the Apes") plays Trishna, a humble country girl who teaches native dancing at a Rajasthan tourist resort. Jay (Riz Ahmed), the Indian-born, English-educated son of a wealthy hotel owner, is instantly hooked by the 19-year-old's otherworldly beauty.
At first the handsome newcomer appears to be a savior. When a car crash leaves Trishna's father unfit to work, Jay rescues her family by offering the naive stunner a well-paid job at his Jaipur hotel. He's smitten by her innocence as much as her looks, but as he woos and wins her (or possibly takes her by force; the film withholds the precise details), Jay refashions her to his preferences.
He moves her to a lavish apartment in cosmopolitan Mumbai, where their relationship raises no eyebrows. Her modest saris give way to a club girl wardrobe of tight jeans, sky-high heels and fitted T-shirts. Jay shows her off like an accessory to his city-slicker crowd of Bollywood directors, starlets and hangers-on. During his long trip back to England, she waits demurely, unwilling to trouble him with a call even after the lease on their love nest runs out and she finds herself on the streets.
There are excuses, apologies and explanations when Jay returns, but Trishna's ever-shrinking importance in his world is unmistakable. His temper spikes, as do her humiliations. The status divisions widen, and the story darkens from doomed romance to tragedy.
Winterbottom and his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind give the story a relentless visual energy. Their half-documentary portrait of India is a teeming marketplace of swirling color and incessant bustle. They also find smart imagery to highlight the story's themes. Trishna's first responsibility at Jay's hotel is to feed the resort's songbirds in their walk-in cages. The couple gazes longingly at each other through the barrier. Later we see the beach adjoining their oceanfront high-rise: rather than sensual sand, the shoreline is punishing, slippery stones.
At moments like these, "Trishna"brings Hardy's grim skepticism alive as clearly as shadows under India's punishing sun.
• Rated: R for sexuality, violence, drug use and some language.
• Director: Michael Winterbottom.
• Cast: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed.
• Running time: 117 minutes.