You should know better than to read the book before seeing the movie--and this version of Tess of D'Urbervilles follows the rule. The book is full of soaring hopes, searing defeat, and slow torture of the soul. Every fiber of your being aches for Tess. In Trishna, my solar plexus felt a little dodgy for most of the film, but it was only partially because I was sad for Trishna (Freida Pinto). I think the rest was just heartburn.
This is the typical "boy meets girl, gives girl job, asks her to move in, then eventually turns into her tormentor" story set in India. Trishna meets Jay (Riz Ahmed) as she's serving him at a hotel, which sets the tone for their entire master-servant relationship. He woos her, and when her father cannot work due to a major injury, he gives her a job. It's all "quiet flirtation in the corridors" at first, but finally, one night, they leave behind the old fashioned social rules of India and get it on. This leads to Trishna up and leaving the job and Jay in shame, but as obsession normally works, he won't rest until he gets her back. At first, it's all romantic escapism, but slowly, their relationship takes a turn. When life happens, they end up in a very different place than the one they started in.
Normally, romances like this are filled with lusty heat and heaps of personality, even if it's kept under wraps in a petticoat or sari. Although this movie is gorgeous and a very dynamic representation of India (to rival even that of the stunningly filmed Best Exotic Marigold Hotel from earlier this year), the main characters feel opposite that. I couldn't decide if it was a spot-on expression of the strict morality of Indian society, where couples are less free to express themselves in public than the ones in Western society, or if it was just a lack of good writing. I assume, due to my watch-glancing by the time Trishna had once again allowed herself to be bought by Jay, that it's the latter. I wanted to know them a little bit better, because I didn't have a sense of who they were beyond rich boy and downtrodden girl.
I really want to love Freida Pinto. When she shows up as The Girlfriend in movies like Slumdog Millionaire and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I always see it as a sign that someday she's going to get her own big movie where she gets to talk a lot via a fully realized character. Even though in Trishna she gets a lot of screen time and is really great at making her gorgeous brown eyes look sad, it can't make up for deficits in the rest of the film. I didn't know why she fell for Jay, aside from his money and persistence. Of course maybe that's all it takes, but for her to put up with the endless parade of injustices walked the line between The Way It Is and Unmotivated.
This could all be intentional, however, because when something finally does happen at the end, it's a real jolt. But I'm left pondering whether the movie was intentionally plodding just to lead up to a couple of moments, instead of focusing on the sense of tragedy I should feel for Trishna. Aside from shock, there wasn't much in my heart for her. This comes off like more of a Cliff's Notes version than an ingenious interpretation.