Gurinder Chadha serves us a slice of British/Indian history in a clumsy mix of waffling politics, tumultuous outbreaks, lush sets and romantic fluff.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
After three hundred years under British rule, India is finally transitioning to an independent nation in 1947. The Viceroy’s House, a decadent palace in Delhi, was home to these rulers for centuries. Now it is to host one final Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), tasked with overseeing the handover back to the Indian people. But this is no simple manoeuvre; the nation is divided in opinion from the great change and soon mass conflict erupts, severely complicating things for the Viceroy, his family and his servants.
Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) occasionally gives life to the rich history and subject matter of Viceroy’s House, though it’s a tad too often that she squanders it with the melodrama and directional flair of a made-for-television movie. Luckily, such superficial shortcomings are routinely rescued thanks to history itself stepping in to give some vibrancy to an otherwise flat and conventional royalty period piece.
Pomp and circumstance is dialled up to eleven as the Mountbattens enter the Viceroy’s House. Thankfully, the charade is dropped when the Lord is forced to deal with real issues, and suddenly we’re permitted a more authentic look at everyday life in the House, and the actors are given the opportunity to flex more than just their accents.
The film is at its best when famous real-life figures drop in, especially Gandhi (portrayed cheerfully by Neeraj Kabi), who gets some of the most amusing and interesting scenes. It’s unfortunate that much of the lead up to this is a long slog of dry political negotiations and debates. These may be authentic, but they’re deadly dull, save for the occasional bit of conflict or wry humour from General Ismay (Michael Gambon).
Even worse is the extremely strained and hokey love story between Jeet (Manish Dayal), a manservant of the Viceroy, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a newly appointed assistant. It checks off every romantic cliché in the book, even throwing in a love triangle with an arranged marriage and a separation that leads to tragedy. This does a great disservice to the plot, feeling clumsily placed and distracting from anything potentially interesting.
The full tale of India’s Partition is perhaps too much to be crammed into less than two hours, especially when much of that time is spent focused on melodramatic nonsense over the great transition at hand. Viceroy’s House will no doubt be adored by the elderly, to whom this by-the-books royal biopic is clearly geared towards. It’s lively and watchable enough, and does boast another exotic score from A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).
Viceroy’s House is available in Australian cinemas from May 18
Image courtesy of Transmission Films