The partition of India in 1947 gets the glossy Downton Abbey treatment in Viceroy’s House, a superficial postcard of a film that doesn’t come anywhere near doing justice to the biggest forced mass migration in world history.
To tackle this epic subject director Gurinder Chadha along with co-writer husband Paul Mayeda Berges have set the story inside the residence of the Viceroy. The idea being to create an upstairs downstairs bifurcated story that depicts the decision making by the governing political figures and religious leaders and how this affects the common servants working in the titular mansion.
It’s fair to say the common people receive short shrift both in history and in the film’s focus. Most of the attention is set on the newly arrived, and final, Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), who has the task of handing independence of British India back to the people. It’s a role that becomes increasingly complicated and delicate when it becomes evident just how deep the divisions are between the Hindu and Muslim populations.
As the former British India is arduously split into India and Pakistan, much of the story centres on the unfortunate compromises old ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten is forced into, and what a lovely, decent person Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) is, being so respectful to the servants.
The servants themselves are handed a rather simplistic characters-as-metaphor soap opera of a sub-plot about doomed lovers torn apart by their differing religions.
There are small snippets of archival footage which are actually the most effective element of the film. They have you wishing you could just watch a documentary on the subject instead.
This is Chadha’s first stab at an historical story, having previously given us light-hearted fare like Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice. Apparently all she wants to do now is fact-based material, but while she may have felt impassioned during the filmmaking process, it doesn’t translate onto the screen.
Visually, this is indeed a handsome production, with fine attention to detail on a relatively small budget. Some scenes were shot inside in and around the real palace of the Viceroy, now called Rashtrapati Bhavan.
A.R. Rahman’s score may avoid the obvious Indian fusion cues, but maybe that would have been better than the dreadful treacle that he lays on in liberal doses.
Bonneville slips comfortably into Lord Crawley mode with no major adjustments necessary. Anderson impresses the most, transforming credibly into Lady Mountbatten through body language alone.
Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi don’t get much opportunity for subtlety as star-crossed lovers Jeet and Aalia, although they both have an impressive screen presence.
Given the great significance of the events portrayed, and how the paucity of good films on the subject, this unfortunately is a real missed opportunity.
It may serve as a handy history lesson for the uninitiated, but given the inherent power of the subject, this is very tepid storytelling.
Viceroy House is currently in national release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee