When indulging in period pieces – in this instance a film set in the latter end of the 1940s, just after the Second World War, there’s an overriding sense of satisfaction that so often occurs – the ‘at least we’re not like that anymore’ feeling, where you struggle to quite comprehend how vitriolic human beings used to be to one another. In the case of Viceroy’s House, which casts an eye over the religious divide that led to the partition in India, there’s an overwhelming sense of pertinence that makes for a profound piece of cinema, for mistreating people based on their religious beliefs is hardly something that has gone away – if anything, it’s more relevant now than it has been for a long time. The stories may be different, but people, sadly, are not.
Primed to be the very final Viceroy in India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is not quite prepared for the task that lies ahead, as while anticipating a somewhat comfortable role in helping the nation’s transition into independence, instead he gets embroiled in the conflict sweeping the country, between the Hindu population and the Muslims. Alongside his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) they struggle to navigate their way around this tricky situation, with violence on the streets, and the proposition of a new country being formed in Pakistan – time is against them, and we see how it affects many of those who work as their servants, including Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and Jeet (Manish Dayal), in love with one another, and yet unable to act upon their impulses given they each belong to a different faith.
This narrative, which scrutinises over the notion of identity, is one that remains extremely personal to Chadha, who had relatives affected by the events that took place – particularly pointed is the depiction of refugees travelling away from their villages and towns, seeking solace elsewhere – which is, in some ways, the most moving, relevant issue the film explores. It’s an interesting picture too that should provide a new, alternative argument into the partition debate, for the Mountbattens are painted out in a somewhat negative way in India, blamed by many for their hand in this situation, whereas Chadha takes a rather more sympathetic perspective, as it seems, for the most part, they had little choice in the matter. However, and in spite of the fascinating themes on show, the convoluted narrative and inclination to shoehorn in so many themes and plot-lines is detrimental, for we lose sight, and focus of what truly matters. The romantic narrative at the core is emblematic of this fact and while completely understanding the point in having the Aalia and Jeet sub-storyline; to highlight the divide – it feels so contrived and unsubtle in its execution and represents the more tedious scenes that make up this feature.
That being said, the performances are impressive, Anderson in particular standing out, while there’s also a role for the late, great Bollywood star Om Puri, who brings such nuance to every role he appears in – and while this may be flawed endeavour, given the actor’s inclination to move so seamlessly between India, UK and the States, to have a film that can be easily accessible and speak to such a broad audience, seems a fitting project for him to bow out on.