If we can agree that Tess, Roman Polanski's 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, is a solid, lasting thing that needs no reboot, then the only way to tell it again effectively would be to set the action in a part of the contemporary world in which women are still treated like second (or third) class citizens, the way England did in the 19th century. Rural India then, where they're still trying to convince men not to commit wife-homicide via bride burnings? Perfect.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, a filmmaker whose steadfast competence and ability to genre-hop can be easy to take for granted -- he made the wildly differing Welcome to Sarajevo, The Killer Inside Me and the Steve-Coogan-does-what-he-wants trilogy of Tristram Shandy, The Trip and 24 Hour Party People -- Hardy's story of victimization and ruined womanhood has a new face in Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto. And her own quiet presence (she's appeared in a handful of films and is already a pro at allowing action to happen to her) makes her the perfect passive star for a story where the main character's lack of agency drives her to a bitter end.
Trishna, the eldest daughter of a truck driver, goes to Jaipur to work in a hotel overseen by the rich son (Riz Ahmed, Four Lions) of a property developer. He woos her, wins her love and virginity, whisks her off to Mumbai for a very modern love affair that she initially takes to easily, without provincial guilt, and... well, it goes south quickly. Prince Charming, once he obtains his prize, loses a lot of his charm.
It's giving nothing away to say that it's a no-win world for Trishna. Even people who only skimmed Hardy's novel in high school know that Tess's story is a bleak one, where centuries-old traditions of male dominance and stacked-against-women power structures crush the life out of the heroine. But Winterbottom's decision to avoid histrionics, to composite characters and to move his players along quietly but inexorably toward their unhappy endings takes away some of the sting and outrage audiences in more progressive geographies might otherwise feel.
Maybe Winterbottom wanted his Tess/Trishna to resemble Delfine Seyrig's title character in Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Ackerman's 1975 domestic nightmare about a dutiful housewife who finally snaps); maybe he envisioned a silent, mowed-down flower rather than a fire-breathing Riot Grrl. Well, he got what he wanted, but that and the film's overall dignity and subdued tone drains a lot of the potential power out of the final product. Good enough, but it could have been galvanizing. Instead it shuffles obediently into the dark.