Not wasting any time, Michael Winterbottom hurls Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles into the 21st century. Its themes are easily recognizable, though transported to a new setting far from Hardy’s post-industrial West Country—India. Winterbottom modernizes Hardy’s exposé of sexual hypocrisy and the impenetrability of the class system with movie-star glamour (starring the impossibly good-looking Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed). He’s indebted to, but not weighed down, by the literary classic, so much so that his script plays fast and freely with the plot, to the point where the fate of the title character can go any which way. For a moment, you might believe all will end well for the lower-caste Trishna and the English-educated rich kid Jay, but Winterbottom remains faithful to Hardy’s whiplash reversals of fortune, perhaps the most important trick to retelling Tess.
It begins with Jay and his British frat boy mates on a tour of the subcontinent, and the first time we see 19-year-old Trishna is through his eyes as she makes an offering at a 2500-year-old Hindu temple. He notices her again working as a hotel waitress, and pulls strings to land her a housekeeping job at his father’s palatial resort. She has little choice but to accept the offer—she supports her entire family. And like in the book, dad’s a drunk. At first, Jay’s charming in a Jack the lad sort of way, the mate who always picks up the tab, and he has the ability to hide his non-altruistic intentions behind a kilo-watt smile.
The script barrels through the novel with a restive camera, even speedier than in Winterbottom’s reverent take on Hardy’s Jude the Obscure in Jude (1997). And for most of the film, he sweeps you along. Though Winterbottom has stated that much was improvised, the momentum propels forward. There’s no slackness or digression that often creeps up when actors go off script. Yet it might explain the reticent performance by Pinto. Trishna comes across as appropriately malleable, which Jay will take advantage of, but because the script takes a few short cuts here and there in the plot, the sudden emergence of her backbone comes very late in the game, and her final actions don’t have the impact that they should.
The most crucial departure from Hardy is the blending of his two male protagonists. Winterbottom combines the aristocratic villain, Alec D’Urberville, with Tess’s love interest/savior, the progressive preacher’s son, Angel. Though Jay has little of Angel’s spiritual quality, he oozes charm and sexuality, and is about the same age as Trishna. Only in that respect are the lovers equals. Otherwise, he refrains from challenging his real estate mogul father’s disapproval of the match. In the book, Tess’s parents aspire to be recognized as landed gentry because of an assumed family connection, not knowing that the supposed distant relative, Alec d’Urberville, bought the ancient, aristocratic name. Back in India, Trishna’s family never expects her to marry Jay. They’re content with the material bounty he bestows on them, and she doesn’t challenge her status when he keeps his distance from her in public.
Whether in Hardy’s English farming town or among India’s nouveau riche, Winterbottom suggests that the male gaze may be as myopic as it was more than a hundred years ago. For Jay, Trisha conforms to the three roles for an ideal woman, as laid down by the Kuma Sutra—maid, single lady, and courtesan. However, as the result of one man standing in as both the sole culprit for Trishna’s downfall and simultaneously her lover, Jay has more screen time than she. The baddie kind of steals the film, though you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful Tess, I mean, Trishna, and in this role, looks are defining (and maybe too much so.) She’s more of a pawn here than in the novel or in an earlier screen retelling.
Winterbottom’s variation on a theme serves as a great compare/contrast with Roman Polanski’s period-perfect 1980 retelling, Tess, his first European production after he fled the United States, which deservedly won three Oscars for its sets, costumes, and cinematography. He took a 180-degree approach, faithfully and slavishly adhering to the structure of the novel. You could probably read and follow along with the synchronous film. Though Polanski’s pace is languid and stately (and more in line with PBS’s Masterpiece), he created more suspense. His Tess palpably bares her shame of her past, bursting to tell Angel, her fiancé, the complete truth, and star Nastassja Kinski has probably never delivered a better, more vulnerable performance.
Winterbottom also takes an expansive approach (at 118 minutes) that allows for twists and turns, but his film could have even been a bit longer if he hadn’t downplayed Trishna’s urgency to tell her secret. (The audience is in the know, unlike Jay.) Polanski builds so much suspense out of Tess’s struggle that there’s more of an emotional/cathartic climax in his 170-minute version. His fidelity to the book pays off. Without giving too much away, Trishna’s actions are justified but more abrupt. Her motives are not as sharp-edged as in the book or in the earlier movie. Pinto’s more opaque than Kinski, though not necessarily more complex.