Michael Winterbottom's "Trishna," which transplants Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" into modern-day India, stars Freida Pinto in the title role of a village girl seduced by a worldly young man. It's a timely film, partly because its themes of class and privilge are everywhere in the movies right now, from the summer blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises," set in a Gotham City convulsed by populist anger, to the documentary "The Queen of Versailles," about a time-share magnate whose fortune evaporates in the global financial crisis. Both arrive in theaters today.
"Trishna" takes place in a booming economy, though its heroine will discover that old attitudes have yet to change. Jay (Riz Ahmed), a British-educated heir to an Indian hotel chain, whisks her away from conservative Rajisthan to cosmopolitan Bombay, where they openly hang with his free-thinking Bollywood friends. Back home, though, Jay prefers the roles of boss and underling -- an increasingly exploitive relationship.
"Trishna" works largely on the strength of Winterbottom's clever updates of a century-old story. Hardy's milkmaids become hotel maids, a valuable farm-horse becomes a spluttering Jeep and, most effectively, the libertine Alec d'Urberville is recast as a playboy in cargo shorts. Ahmed is terrific as Jay: affable, handsome, utterly thoughtless.
The film's weakness, however, is Pinto. Since her debut in "Slumdog Millionaire," Pinto has attracted interest from Woody Allen, Julian Schnabel and mainstream Hollywood ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes"), but has yet to reveal much more than her radiant beauty. It's clear why Jay ravishes the docile Trishna in several steamy scenes, but in the end she seems like little more than a pretty victim. Something about that feels wrong, as if the movie's attitude could use an update, too.
PLOT In rapidly changing India, a village girl falls for a wealthy young playboy. RATING R (sexuality, violence)
PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinemas
BOTTOM LINE Michael Winterbottom's thought-provoking update of a Thomas Hardy novel is more about ideas than emotions, with many clever details but a skin-deep performance from Pinto.