UK Release Date: 3rd March 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Writer: Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Tanveer Ghani, Denzil Smith, Michael Gambon, Neeraj Kabi, Om Puri
Synopsis: As India prepares to become a nation independent of the British Empire, a final Viceroy is sent to the country in order to manage the transition – as some suggest the country should be split in two.
The partitioning of India in 1947, which created the modern nation of Pakistan, was a troubling and messy event in which political wranglings tore families apart and led to a long period of chaotic instability in the two new countries. The British left the country they had ruled for many years in a state of ruin. Not that you’d know it from Viceroy’s House, which takes all of that chaos and instability and bathes it in the gloss, sheen and safety of a Sunday evening ITV drama. This is the British Empire given the Downton Abbey treatment and, unlike the events it depicts, the film is the comfortable equivalent of a sweet, milky cup of tea at your grandmother’s house.
Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is appointed as the Viceroy of India, responsible for overseeing the transition of power from the British Empire to a new Indian government. Along with his wife (Gillian Anderson), Mountbatten negotiates with religious leaders, including Muslim leader Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Indian diplomat Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), in order to pave the way for the best possible power agreement. The story also follows Hindu servant Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Muslim assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) as they follow a tentative romance in amongst the political tensions.
There’s definitely an important story worth telling at the centre of Viceroy’s House and, given director Gurinder Chadha’s personal connection to the material, she seems the perfect person to tell the story. However, this film is let down by its cosy, British feel. It always feels like it is holding the more rough edges of its story at arm’s length in order to emphasise the nice clothes and plummy voices of the posh white people deciding the fates of thousands of Indian people, shouting at each other in lavish rooms while chaos erupts on the streets.
All involved are doing perfectly okay work here, even if most of them are playing parts they could do in their sleep. Hugh Bonneville is solid as the fiercely moral and immovably fair Lord Mountbatten and Gillian Anderson really makes the best of her material as his wife, but neither has much in the way of depth. Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi are equally solid as a couple torn apart by cultural divisions, but much of their story appears to have been told before the film begins and they are often sidelined by the more glamorous politics going on above them.
Viceroy’s House certainly looks lavish and crowd-pleasing. There are plenty of nice frocks and attractive interiors for the Downton crowd, who have already finished watching The Crown on their grandson’s Netflix account. What’s missing, though, is a sense of how the complexities of the negotiations are affecting the people living outside of the titular building. Lip service is paid to this context, but it’s couched in such gloss and sheen that it always feels infuriatingly safe, even when it is nominally depicting shocking and terrifying real events.
This is a film that has plenty to say, but feels a little too terrified to say it. It’s as if the violence and sadness of the subject matter didn’t quite fit in well enough with the notion of a frothy, light historical tale to get the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel crowd in to bolster the midweek box office. When the final credits illuminate Gurinder Chadha’s personal connection to the events, it becomes even more of a disappointment that this is a film that plays to the crowd quite as much as it does.
Pop or Poop?
It’s almost a shame that Viceroy’s House is such a smooth, efficient movie because it should be far more. Where empty Britishness glosses over the intriguing and complex politics, the film stumbles over itself in an attempt to keep things nice and light-hearted. It should have real emotional impact, but the central romance is under-cooked and fails to pull the audience in to the story.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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