To its credit, “Viceroy’s House” does tell a gripping story about the Partition of India and the mass displacement that then followed. Full of harrowing details and unbelievable twists, the tale is then brought to a powerfully emotional close with the reveal that it is the story of director Gurinder Chadha’s own family.
To the film’s detriment, it only does so in its final 30 seconds, as a series of titles over black just before the credits roll. Unfortunately, there is nothing a fraction as engaging in the preceding 106 minutes.
“Viceroy’s House” gives away its intentions right there in the title. The film depicts those momentous events of 1947 – the year the British left India for good, though not before carving out chunks of India’s east and west to create the Dominion of Pakistan – from the limited vantage point of the Viceroy’s New Delhi residence, now known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Following the palace’s staff as well as the various diplomats and heads of state, the film takes a page from a certain Broadway hit, putting you right in The Room Where It Happens, and then locking the door behind you.
With an upstairs/downstairs focus and a cloistered, if opulent, setting, those “Downton Abbey” comparisons were never far behind, and the film confronts them head-on by casting the Earl of Grantham himself, Hugh Bonneville, as Lord Mountbatten. The story opens as he arrives in Delhi, wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) in tow, to assume his post as Britain’s last Viceroy to India, there to oversee the peaceful transfer of power. The young Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal) arrives at the same time, and while training as valet he ends up falling in love with Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim. We then follow these two concurrent narratives, as Jeet and Aalia begin their courtship while Mountbatten and his cohorts doom it, deciding to divide the two countries along religious lines.
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This material could make for a powerful work, but “Viceroy’s House” is certainly not it. The film’s chief offense is its bland inoffensiveness. While Chadha clearly has a strong viewpoint with regards to this history, she spends so much of the film choosing to downplay it, letting many of the high-wire negotiations play out in a series of broadly-lit, platitude rich sequences that do nothing to indicate the level of world-altering statecraft at play. Again, one could make a caustic argument that the fate of the many is decided by a well-heeled, oblivious few, but the film never actually strains itself to do so, reveling in the protocols and surroundings with the same kind of aristocrat-awe that has informed recent soaps like “The Crown” (and yes, “Downton Abbey”) and the same respectable wanness that marked series like “Masterpiece Theatre” long before that.
Chadha parades out all the requisite historical players — here comes Gandhi! Look, it’s Jinnah! — with actors who bear remarkable likenesses to the real-life figures but in no way act like flesh and blood people. This stately docudrama is almost entirely bereft of actual drama, so when Nehru pops in to discuss his vision of a free India, it all comes off like particularly well-staged historical pageant, an animatronic test run for Disney’s Hall of Presidents, Delhi edition.
Jeet, Aalia and the palace staff fare little better, saddled as they are with equally flimsy characterizations and dialogue that only exists to bluntly telegraph exactly what the filmmakers want any scene to impart. When the negotiations are going well, Jeet turns to a colleague and earnestly intones, “This is what our fathers dreamed of.” When the partition promises to split up families and friends, he indignantly stammers, “You are as Indian as we are!”
When the film relaxes a bit, when it doesn’t try the carry the mantle of Weighty History or Tragic Romance, it considerably improves. Anderson is reliably effective as the stuffy aristocrat who takes an active interest in the local culture, and it’s nice to see the late Om Puri offer one of his final performances as Aalia’s father. As the exception that proves the rule, British national-treasure Michael Gambon is absolutely aces as Lord Ismay, the Westminster wheeler-dealer and behind-the-scenes powerbroker.
His few scenes crackle because unlike other similar sequences, his are rooted in character motivation and reversals related to plot. In short, they work because the deal with the stakes put forward by the story, and don’t seek to give a tick-tock walk through history. The fundamental problem with that latter approach is quite simple. A here’s-how-it-went-down docudrama can never going to convey subtlety and nuance as could the two non-fiction books from which “Viceroy’s House” is based. While at the same time, a Room Where It Happens narrative is never going to have the same impact as actually being in the room. At least there, there are cocktails.
“Viceroy’s House” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.