Heritage Cinema is too easy to sniff at. Likewise, populist historicals are too often the recipient of critical derision. Indeed, much of my own criticism for Theodore Melfi’s recent Hidden Figures was perhaps even guilty of this. Broad strokes in cinema can grant a complex issue vital accessibility, a fact that should absolutely be celebrated. That said, it’s a fine balance and I maintain – for now anyway – that Hidden Figures takes simplification just too far in its crowd pleasing to fully enable a more than surface-level depth.
Watching Viceroy’s House, directed by Gurinder Chadha, it’s very easy to imagine this film too receiving exactly that sort of broadsheet reception. Within the first thirty minutes the entire plot has been summed up on numerous occasions, by countless characters and so explicitly that these are lines which might as well have been copied from the synopsis: ‘Three hundred million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs want a united India…a hundred million more Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs want to tear it apart’ and so on. Again, this isn’t entirely an inherently bad thing however. Whilst it is certainly a means of storytelling that will always hold Viceroy’s House back from greatness, Chadha’s film is one which has the confidence to know that and accept it. As a result, the finished product is a solid work well done.
As aforementioned, Viceroy’s House tells the story of the post-war partition of India and its liberation from the collapsing British Empire. To oversee the transition of power, Dickie Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is appointed the last Viceroy of India and so travels to the country, his wife (Gillian Anderson) and daughter (Lily Travers) by his side, all three keeping up appearances. He finds, however, a county suffering from centuries of ‘divide and rule’ leadership; an India in which a unified independence seems impossible. Seemingly irreparable cracks have formed between the country’s faiths, with the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh parties at loggerheads, whilst violence spreads across the country’s vastly populated towns and cities. ‘Freedom is coming’ beams Manish Dayal’s Jeet, but at what cost?
The Mountbatten’s are a philanthropic trio, each with immaculately clipped accents. Anderson’s Lady Mountbatten is the most affected (both emotionally and in terms of her accent), wishing to leave a legacy behind of social improvement in a society where the majority are illiterate and too many die in childbirth: ‘We have enough time to really make a difference’ she says. Chadha has called the film an Upstairs Downstairs retelling of history and so the perspectives of the upper family are balanced by a parallel focus on the ‘downstairs’ serving staff at the Viceroy’s House. This is achieved primarily via the depiction of the fractious romance of Jeet and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) – a star-crossed pair, at love across religious boundaries. As many, including the man to whom Aalia is arranged to marriage, wish to establish an independent nation – Pakistan – for Muslims in fear of segregation through the population imbalance that sees most of India dominated by Sikhs and Hindus, Jeet and Aalia’s utopian future is symbolically challenged. Lord Mountbatten, forced into impartiality, and his family don’t want the split all that much either but have no answers: ‘You have divided us and now you ask us for a solution?’ says Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) to the Viceroy.
From the off Viceroy’s House is a beautiful film to look at, well handling challenging issues in a controversial history. Ben Smithard’s cinematography makes good with the already lovely canvas of India, whilst A. R. Rahman’ score vitalises a real depth in the vistas. It’s not a film that ever quite gets its hands dirty, preferring to depict violence and hardship through a black and white newsreel presentational style. Likewise, the performances are grounded, reliable and solid, Bonneville bringing Downton decency and Anderson a touch of refinement to the surprisingly forward-thinking Edwina Mountbatten. An example of the film’s methodologies would be in its exorcism of Edwina’s supposed relationship with Nehru. Anderson has suggested its controversial implications as being left aside so as not to offend Indian audiences, but equally the cut of such complexity allows for a more directed central focus.
I entered Viceroy’s House with only a limited knowledge of its story. It’s not Gandhi (although he does appear) but coming out left me satisfied that Chadha had improved my understanding whilst never failing to engage on a dramatic and emotional level. When the film ended and the lights came up, the audience in my screening didn’t move – I admired that.