Here's the good thing about economic inequality — it sure adds relevance to modern-day adaptations of 19th-century novels.
Take the class cruelty of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Not only is it alive and well in the new millennium, when you throw India’s relatively rigid caste system into the mix, it makes perfect sense for director Michael Winterbottom to set this new version of “Tess” in South Asia.
But even though Winterbottom is a seasoned adapter of Hardy (“The Claim” and “Jude” were based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and “Jude the Obscure,” respectively), he bobbles it a bit this time out.
By combining the characters of Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare into one person — spoiled rich boy Jay (Riz Ahmed, “Four Lions”) — he strips the tale of a compelling second act, making things sag terribly in the middle.
The luminous Frieda Pinto stars as Trishna, a young woman growing up poor in a rural Indian village. By day, she helps bring fruits and vegetables to market, and on some nights, she teaches regional dances to visiting tourists. Jay is one of those visitors, who immediately finds himself besotted with her.
When Trishna’s father falls asleep on the road and wrecks the family jeep, Jay offers to bring Trishna to Jaipur to work in one of his father’s hotels so she can send home money to her family, now without its principal breadwinner. (Jay’s father is compellingly played by that rascally scene-stealer Roshan Seth.)
Like Hardy’s heroine, Trishna has no agenda toward rising above her station; she just wants to do the right thing by her family. But the more she becomes enmeshed in Jay’s world, the more her life spins out of control.
They spend one night together in Jaipur, after which she immediately returns home, only to discover that she’s pregnant. Trishna’s father insists that she get an abortion, an act that will enrage Jay when he hears about it much, much later. (A jerk pretending to be an enlightened guy, Jay masks his anger about the abortion itself as hurt feelings over not having been told about it.)
That confrontation happens after Jay returns for Trishna and whisks her off to Bombay, where he’s attempting to leave the family business to become a Bollywood producer. But this chunk is so lacking in dramatic tension, despite a few hints of Jay’s controlling nature, that it stops the film dead in its tracks.
Ahmed is a striking screen presence, and he makes Jay a most compelling rotter, revealing his true colors so slowly that we see how Trishna doesn’t perceive the truth until it’s way too late. And while Pinto’s no slouch in the camera-loves-her department, her own passivity meshes with the character’s to an extent that her victimization becomes hard to watch.
Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (“The Killer Inside Me”) go out of their way to give us an India that’s not the well-trodden land of, say, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” capturing both city and country, wealth and poverty.
Roman Polanski’s “Tess” probably remains the definitive screen version of this classic novel, but Winterbottom’s attempt, while flawed, provides its own pleasures.