Aida Vucic | 06/04/2017
A melodrama intertwined with a political conflict best describes director Gurinder Chadha’s account of the end of the British occupation of India. Amidst the turmoil, conspiracy and ruthless division of a nation, the forced love story of Viceroy’s House is inconsequential at best, contrived at worst.
Viceroy’s House, also the name used for the imperial seat of administration in India during Britain’s occupation, documents Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) as he takes up residence in India’s version of Versailles. Accompanied by his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Lady Pamela Hicks, he is charged with bringing independence to a country Britain has ruled for the preceding 300 years. The film simultaneously documents the Romeo and Juliet-esque relationship between two of the Viceroy’s staff; Muslim born Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and Hindu, Jeet (Manish Dayal). Their relationship serves as a case-study on the geopolitical hardship of the proposed partitioning of India, with their tiny piece of experience of the upheaval being juxtaposed against the high stakes chess game between a consort of political leaders involved in the historic events.
The film fails to capture the severity of the repercussions of the mass migration and massacres which followed the partition. As a recourse, the film does provide a controversial portrayal of Britain’s contrived decision to partition India, hanging Winston Churchill out to dry as being the instigator of the partition. Chagha makes clear that the decision to create Pakistan as a preventative measure, designed to protect the marginalised Muslim population, was only a guise under which creation of a state which was more docile to the British and strategical placed would be achieved.
Chadha craftily creates an illusory harmony amongst the staff members, which is broken during a tense altercation. It is scenes like this where Chadha is able to more effectively convey the suffering, and provide some evidence of the animosity held between Hindu Indians and Muslim Indians, as well as that towards their British colonists. These fist fights amongst equals are dealt with as more provocative moments than the historical footage of the atrocities or the refugee camps, and it is to the films detriment. Rather than delivering a picture that packs a punch, Chadha opts to focus on the romantic subplot, leaving us with a largely bare film.
Bonneville barely makes an impression as Mountbatten, and while Gillian Anderson is undeniably good as Edwina, there just isn’t enough story spent on the two Mountbatten’s to justify them as the leads, or indeed as characters of much interest. In fact, it is the two young love birds who get most of our attention. Jeet and Aalia’s tale is utterly out-of-place amongst the war torn façade of the tale, and this strikes to the heart of what is wrong with Viceroy’s House; consistency. Tonally, Viceroy’s House plays as a staid political thriller, an upbeat love story and a horrific war story, and while a better director may have been able to balance the three, Chadha’s ham-fisted direction will give you tonal whiplash.
Coupled with one of cinema’s poorest portrayals of Gandhi, one that is verging on the discriminatory, Viceroy’s House falters under its own sense of scope.
Although, Viceroy’s House had the elements to be a politically profound piece, its digression from historical fact brand it as a commercialised period piece. With the diverging storylines distracting audiences, the film would have better been served delivered as two.