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Hardy meets Karma Sutra
on 18 November 2012
This is Michael Winterbottom's third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel- we previously had Gold Rush Western The Mayor of Casterbridge and Spark-Notes Jude. He has really botched this adaptation of Tess of The D'Urbervilles up.
The setting does work actually. We're in modern day Rajasthan and Trishna (the Tess character) is sent to work at a restaurant, owned by British-Indian Jay (Riz Ahmed). The parallels with the novel are all very neat, the setting looks lovely, and somewhere lurking under the smut, there is an interesting theme about the Westernisation of India.
The problem lies in the decision to merge the characters of Angel and Alec (Tess' two very different lovers in the novel), so that Jay's character just comes off as a sleaze and then suddenly goes mad and starts forcing Trishna to go through the Karma Sutra with him. One could argue that it is linked to Hardy's theme of erotolepsy (sex addiction) but this is Michael Winterbottom, where smut needs no explanation for its presence. Ahmed's performance is dreadful- he is so irritating and uncharismatic that it is ridiculous that Trishna would ever have been attracted to him, and it makes us think less of him and Trishna. Frieda Pinto is sufficiently beautiful, which is enough for her to get by.
Ahmed's dire performance is not helped by the idiotic decision to use improvisation. There is very little dialogue in this film, which we have to be thankful for, considering what the actors come up with. When Trishna announces her pregnancy, Jay reacts as if she's burnt his toast. There is no drama or excitement or any tension in the dialogue. Was Winterbottom too stingy to get a decent screenwriter?
So, a promising idea ruined by a poor director. As much as I admire Winterbottom's decision to bring Hardy's brilliant novels to the screen, I'd rather he handed the job over to a better director.