Mark Reviews Movies

Viceroy's House


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon, Lily Travers, Om Puri, Simon Williams, Tanveer Ghani, Denzil Smith, Simon Callow, Nicholas Blane, Sarah-Jane Dias, Samrat Chakrabarti, Neeraj Kabi

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 9/1/17 (limited); 9/8/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 7, 2017

A sprawling story of the final months of British rule over India in 1947, Viceroy's House attempts to mix the political and the personal with varying degrees of success. Paul Mayeda Berges, director Gurinder Chadha, and Moira Buffini's screenplay is most effective in whittling down the debate over the future of an independent India, which has spent three centuries as part of the British Empire. The core of the conversation is how to resolve the religious conflict that has escalated in the country, as centuries of British legislation has engendered the separation of Hindus and Sikhs from a minority Muslim population. From either a political or a moral perspective, there's no right answer here, and the film is steadfast in ensuring that we understand that reality.

The screenplay (based on two books: Freedom at Midnight, written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila) takes the form of the upstairs-downstairs tradition of British drama, in which the concerns of the aristocratic class are juxtaposed with those of the staff who serve the elites. The ruling class is led by Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), chosen by King George VI to become the last Viceroy of India and to oversee the transition of power from the Empire to local government.

His dilemma is how to approach the power struggle among the local leaders, who are separated between the concepts of a united India, in which the power will be assigned by democratic means, and of dividing the country in two, with one nation for the Hindu and Sikh majority and a new nation, to be called Pakistan, for the Muslim population. Mountbatten has the respect of leadership from both sides, after a long period of understandable mistrust for British rulers, but he is determined to keep his opinion out of the matter. If India is to have its independence, the country's foundation must be determined and orchestrated by its own leaders, without the continuing interference of British sway.

On the other side of the story are the servants, primarily Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), a Hindu man who once worked in a British jail for political prisoners but couldn't stand to be part of that unjust system, and Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim woman whose father Ali (the late Om Puri) was once one of those prisoners. She is betrothed to Asif (Arunoday Singh), who is currently in the British army, but she also has feelings for Jeet, who pines for her and hopes to marry her, despite their religious differences and her arranged marriage.

The simplicity of the "downstairs" part of the story is understandable, given that a tale of star-crossed lovers is as easy for an audience to comprehend as it is for writers to plot. There's also the obvious need to offer something simple as a counterpoint to the political complexity of the "upstairs" story.

The obvious downside is that the love story is too familiar—its course seemingly predetermined and predictable as soon as it is introduced. Once the film shifts its purpose, since the entire concept of an upstairs/downstairs divide becomes irrelevant to the situation, the love story comes across as trite against a backdrop of nationwide upheaval in the midst of the result of independence and division.

This matters, of course, but in the big picture, the film is less about the love story than it is the politics. Mountbatten has multiple meetings with Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), who wants a democratic and united India without much concern for the religious minority population, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), the leader of the Muslim League who believes that partition is the only solution to increasing sectarian violence in places where there is no obvious religious majority. Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) wishes for real unity, offers compromises to benefit both sides, and becomes disillusioned as forces beyond anyone's control begin to take over the fate of India.

Within his own government, Mountbatten has to contend with the likes of General Lionel Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), a loyalist to Winston Churchill, who disagrees with the concept of independence, since he believes the country is full of "primitive Indians." Meanwhile, the viceroy's wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), a liberal idealist, advocates for basic reforms within the country, taking tours of local villages to better understand the problems of the local population. Of all the proposed ideas for what to do with and within India, hers seem to fall on deaf ears all around.

The screenplay condenses the politics without losing the complexity and impossibility of the situation. Chadha, whose familial connection to the events on screen is pointed out during the film's coda, has a firm command of displaying the hypocrisy of those in charge—through the pomp and clout of both British and Indian leaders in the way they treat everyday citizens, respectively, with disinterest and as pawns—and the absurdity of dividing a country with no understanding of it. Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the impartial party brought in to draw the new borders, has never set foot in India until his arrival, and members of the staff are reduced to arguing over which country gets which books from the library of the viceroy's palace.

All of this outweighs the film's weakest link—the melodrama surrounding Jeet and Aalia. That storyline may fail to give Viceroy's House the obvious emotional center for which it exists, but the film's dissection of the political motives and machinations behind the story of India's independence and Pakistan's creation is perceptive and communicated with clarity.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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