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in Filmmaking
on Jul 11, 2012

He is a strong adapter, whether he takes a film project from a paper-thin and easily deconstructed source, or from one more profound and multi-layered. He is a master of transposition, revising—shall we say renewing?—for example, foreign, century-old material more compatible with the mores of a later era and its audiences. He would be prolific British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, one of the few directors inspired by texts and visual arts created by others who can reshape them to fit into credible film universes that feel as if all had originated with him. The themes and ideological positions to which he is regularly drawn form a superstructure upon which he builds the final product.

Among this director’s almost shockingly diverse works are adaptation of two novels by Thomas Hardy: Jude (from Jude the Obscure); and, a looser rendering, The Claim (from The Mayor of Casterbridge). He recently revisited Hardyland, a moody zone firmly entrenched in the socio-economics of a particular time and place, to tackle Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He respectfully relocates the setting and alters the era. Right upfront we are in a poor Indian village and not a farming area in Hardy’s West Country. The characters do not wear the mid-19th-century British working-class attire of Victorian England but garments of today, the mix of western and Indian clothes that marks chaotically evolving contemporary India.

Tess the novel and Tess the tragic heroine are now called Trishna. Once again he has successfully constructed a world of his own, but a world that nods often to that conjured by the novelist. Rarely do we witness such a balanced, symbiotic blend of detailed, carefully researched ethnography and an appropriately rhythmic dramatic structure. Winterbottom intuits just the right spots to place his narrative highs and lows.

A superb soundtrack adds yet another dimension to this delicate mélange of variables. For example, old Indian melodies dominate the first section of the film, which does after all take place in a countryside that still adheres to the past. After Trishna leaves her family to be trained as a servant in a fancy tourist hotel far from home, quasi-European classical music takes over, with a bit of cheek. Later scenes in and around rowdy Bollywood, many of which are filled with personal sadness, are peppered with both generic Bollywood tunes and achingly melancholic cello.

A study of his approach to moviemaking would prove invaluable to any filmmaker interested in cross-cultural projects (The Road to Guantanamo), or even just ones set outside his or her usual comfort zone (9 Songs). There is much to be learned. Diversity is his forte: Is there a genre upon which he has not placed his stamp? He is this millennium’s version of the old studio director whose assigned films might be from any genre. The difference is that these practitioners of classical narrative were under contract, obligated to take on whatever the studios commanded. Unlike them, Winterbottom incorporates his movies under his personal umbrella. Some things remain constant, however, at a company he calls Revolution Films. (He was an active Trotskyite in his youth.)

In Hardy’s novel, Tess Durbeyfield is a bright, beautiful peasant whose mother pushes her on to a similarly named family (the father had merely bought the D’Urberville moniker) she thinks, incorrectly, are of high social stature (they were broke), with the hope of elevating her daughter’s class status and augmenting her own finances. Tess is courted and ultimately seduced by the son, Alec. The one-night stand results in pregnancy and the birth of a sickly child who dies within weeks. She runs off and takes on a series of low-paying jobs, then reencounters a much more dashing man, Angel, with whom she had exchanged furtive glances early on at a party.

They end up together, but he can not forgive her after she confesses her brief sexual history. He departs for Brazil to think things over, but finally decides to come back and reclaim her. By then, however, she has married Alec out of desperation. She resolves the dilemma by stabbing Alec to death and taking off, with Angel protecting her. After she is captured and sent to prison, a cloud of black smoke signals her execution. Roman Polanski surprisingly stuck to the book’s mood, characters, and sequence of events in his more self-consciously beautiful, somewhat languorous film Tess (1979).

Winterbottom, on the other hand, reconfigures everything: era, setting, characters, actions. Rural Rajasthan in the early part of the millennium suffers from many of the growing pains that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in the Victorian England depicted in Hardy’s book. Winterbottom’s Trishna (Freida Pinto, gorgeous as ever) is tightly bound to her parents and multiple siblings. They have virtually no prospects of increasing their means. In a brilliant stroke, he conflates Alec and Angel into one duplicitous person, Jay (Riz Ahmed, who starred in The Road to Guantanamo and could become a matinee idol).

Jay is the spoiled son of new money, his father (a charming Roshan Seth) a now-blind Sikh who has made a fortune in England as a hotelier. The caste dimension is of course still significant in India and, though it is never made obvious, is possibly just as important a factor as the huge economic disparity in the possibility of a relationship between Jay and Trishna. One of the father’s properties is near Trishna’s home, and the two youths inevitably meet. Her beauty and shy demeanor beguile him, and she takes small nibbles from his honest but manipulative offers of a career opportunity at the hotel his father lets him run in another town.

The arrangement is convenient for everyone, except perhaps for Trishna, but she is so innocent (Hardy called Tess “a pure woman”) and so controlled by others that she is most likely unaware of it. She sends money home to her parents, and his prospects for her to become his lover are multiplied. After he plays the knight in shining armor, rescuing her from some would-be rapists, she caves, allowing him to seduce her in a splendid nocturnal forest setting.

But her ties to tradition and family are so strong that she runs away the next day for home, much to the consternation of her father, who needs her good salary. The new Trishna fits in nowhere. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. To make matters worse, morning sickness threatens to expose her sexual secret. More in touch with mores in contemporary India is Winterbottom’s solution to her problem and the family’s shame: abortion, a parallel to Angel’s response to Tess’s confession about their dead infant. Like Angel, Jay will later prove unable to handle her leaving him–a male!–out of the decision-making process.

Trishna takes a menial job with a relative in a town near her parents, but the persistent Jay, cocky to begin with, finds her. He has moved to Mumbai to try his hand at the film business, and convinces her to join him as his live-in lover, away from the judgment of others. Over time she is transformed from a slightly awkward provincial girl into an urbanite with full makeup, shorn of her long pigtail, now in with the opportunistic Jay’s crowd of movie artists and technicians. (This is of course mainly an excuse to include Bollywood song-and-dance numbers in the film.) After her revelation about the aborted child and, with his father’s failing health a convenient excuse, he goes on a trip to the UK, but stays on, severing contact with her.

When he does finally return, the one thing that had worked well between them—lovemaking—begins to falter. He increasingly humiliates her, finally pushing her over the edge to commit a crime of passion. Sometimes there is growth within negative behavior: Her action liberates her in a way that allows her to finally make one major decision on her own, certainly without the inclusion of the males who have governed most of her life’s path.

Winterbottom needn’t go to such extremes as the Bollywood sequences to break up the material with rich digressions. Early on in the film, Trishna first meets Jay’s father, near the large outdoor cage where his pet exotic birds are kept. (Let us not make a metaphor out of this.) She had been tending to them in his absence, and her empathy–she even learned to whistle to bond with the birds–touches him, and us, deeply. This scene tells us more about her basic goodness than any dialog. It oozes a sense of warmth and light that is an apt contrast to the much darker turns coming.

The ravishing Pinto might have come across as inert in the quiet, still manner in which she portrays Trishna, but it complements Winterbottom’s brisk pacing. It is, however, never too fast to mask even the minutiae of the sets, props, and characters’ features: The man is a perfectionist. For his part, Ahmed has so much edge and charisma that you would sense vivaciousness if the camera were set on a tripod in a single position for 90 minutes.

Winterbottom’s usual cinematographer Marcel Zyskind captures it all magnificently with his agile camera. When Zyskind films poverty, it does not have the sterilized feel of, say, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire or Mira Nair‘s Salaam Bombay!, nor does he go for an outsider’s vérité. There is no judgment in the form; it is democratic. Sitting through a Winterbottom film is just the opposite of observing a trial in a (fair) court of law. An air of neutrality pervades, even if the director’s positions manage to penetrate.

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