Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon
Early on in Viceroy's House, Lady Mountbatten looks to her husband, the last viceroy of India, and says: Let's not make a mess of it. The two have come to India to give her back her freedom. After three centuries of colonial rule, India is to be freed but also amputated into two nations.
70 years later, the Partition, which displaced over 12 million people and resulted in over a million deaths, continues to haunt the sub-continent. Its scars run deep into our collective psyche. But in Viceroy's House, this cataclysmic event becomes curiously inert. Gurinder Chadha's new film isn't a mess but neither does it do justice to Partition's heart of darkness.
Gurinder and co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini give us the Downton Abbey take on history. The event is seen through the eyes of the Mountbattens – played in fact by Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville and the wonderful Gillian Anderson.It's also seen through the eyes of their staff – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs whose spiffy, starched uniforms start to unravel as the horrors unfold and families start dying. The romance between Mountbatten's Hindu valet and the Muslim Alia, who also works there, becomes a symbolic microcosm of the religious war playing out in the country. The British policy of divide and rule comes to bite them as the country goes up in flames. At one point, Mountbatten says – we have no control.
Viceroy's House is based on the books Freedom At Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of Partition written by Narendra Singh Sarila who was ADC to Lord Mountbatten. The film unquestioningly puts forth Sarila's thesis that in fact Mountbatten was used by the British. The original idea of cleaving India came from Winston Churchill who concocted the plan so the British could align with Pakistan and retain influence over the key strategic port of Karachi. In one scene, Lady Mountbatten unequivocally tells her husband – this tragedy was not of your making. The film presents a disputed version of history as fact, which is inherently problematic.
The clunky dialogue and thin characterizations don't help either. Gurinder has assembled an impressive cast – Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon, Neeraj Kabi, the late Om Puri – but they don't get enough moments to shine. The most memorable is Anderson as Lady Mountbatten – she's smart, empathetic and yet nicely haughty. She also gets the best lines. Early in the film, she says her husband's library reeks of failed negotiations.
Viceroy's House gathers emotional momentum in its latter half. As the horrors of Partition unfold, the film becomes more gripping. It ends with the powerful revelation that the story comes from Gurinder's own family. Viceroy's House has sweep and scale. The production is lavishly mounted and a few moments bring home the sheer awful absurdity of what happened – in one scene, the items of the house are being divided. So the Tuba goes to India and the French Horn to Pakistan.
I wish there had been more of this and less of the platitude-filled pageantry on display.