The most affecting moment of Viceroy’s House comes right before the credits, when director Gruinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) explains her personal connection to the story she’s just presented. During the 1947 Partition of India – in which it is estimated as many as 2 million people died and 14 million were displaced – Chadha’s grandmother lost her family and her daughter starved to death on their journey. Chadha puts a face to this dark period and brings life to this story in just a few brief moments, while she can’t do the same with her flaccid, anesthetic tale of India’s separation.
Viceroy’s House depicts New Delhi in 1947, when the British are finally leaving India. Before they can move on, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) must decide whether to leave India as one nation, or split it into two, separating the Muslim population from the Hindu. While most of the Brits in the area look down on the Indians they are surrounded by, Mountbatten and especially his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) want to engage with the culture and leave the country better off than when they arrived.
Because of Bonneville’s involvement, as the head of a giant palatial home with a multitude of servants, and his reliance on his much more involved wife, Viceroy’s House comes off in the vein of Downton Abbey. Servants whisper about the news they’ve heard from the heads of the household, moments of the Lord is dressed by his helpers, and this milieu could have been directly pulled out of Julian Fellowes’ show.
Chadha’s attempt to personalize the struggle arising between Muslims and Hindus comes in Mountbatten’s staff, as the Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal) tries to win the heart of the Muslim Aalia (Huma Quereshi). These young lovers are so thinly written that their purpose is immediately obvious as the personification of the country tearing apart, and little else.
Frustratingly, Chadha – along with cowriters Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini – chooses to focus on the antiseptic Lord Mountbatten deliberations and the melodramatic Jeet and Aalia story, while briefly hinting at the intriguing stories underneath. Michael Gambon plays Lord Ismay, who late in the story hints that Mountbatten and his crew are nothing but tools for Winston Churchill’s readymade decision to tear the country apart. Besides one conversation, this deeper story isn’t given hardly the attention it deserves. Similarly, the actual Partition – which needs a deserving film on its own – is saved for just a few brief moments of real footage that again bring life to this bloodless story.
Anderson is the saving grace of Viceroy’s House; she plays a compassionate character who wants to integrate the Indian culture into her own life, as a way of understanding these people in a way that past Viceroys haven’t. She gives Edwina a compassionate touch that brings humanity to this story that often is just going through the motions.
Chadha clearly has affection and an intimate stake in this story, but despite some gorgeous shots of Delhi, the passion is lacking in Viceroy’s House. If anything, Chadha’s final moments of personal reflection shows that a more humanistic touch is far more effective and powerful than going through the motions with a by-the-numbers biopic.