'Viceroy's House': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Viceroy’s House  - Still 1 - H 2017
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A lavish but lackluster period drama.

'Bend It Like Beckham' director Gurinder Chadha recreates the stormy birth pains of post-colonial India and Pakistan in this Berlinale premiere.

With the 70th anniversary of Indian independence looming, Viceroy's House is a timely dramatization of that tumultuous night in August 1947 when Britain finally surrendered the "jewel in the crown" of its rapidly imploding Empire. The Punjabi-British director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) drew on true events from her own family history to create this semi-fictionalized period piece, which takes place in and around the magnificent 340-room palace in New Delhi that has served as India's seat of power for most of the last 100 years.

Premiering in Berlin this week ahead of its U.K. theatrical launch in March, Viceroy's House aspires to a kind of widescreen opulence that was once the preserve of old-school masters like David Lean. In the process, sadly, Chadha has distilled a fascinating and epic true story into a starchy, stuffy, sanitized period piece that never fully engages on an emotional or educational level. The subject matter alone will have built-in mass appeal, particularly across the South Asian subcontinent and the global desi community, but the overall dramatic treatment feels woefully clunky.

Viceroy's House seeks to personalize the grand sweep of history by interweaving the high-level backstage horse-trading of British India's last imperial ruler, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), with the more private dramas of the servants working in his palatial household. This upstairs-downstairs approach inevitably invites comparison with Downton Abbey, which also stars Bonneville as the benign patriarch of a grand mansion. The likeness is not flattering.

With Britain exhausted and bankrupt after World War II, Mountbatten and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) arrive at their palatial residence in New Delhi with orders to negotiate a swift but dignified retreat after three centuries of British colonialism. A liberal and diplomatic ruler, Mountbatten's chief dilemma is whether to grant India its independence as a single pluralist nation dominated by its 300 million Hindus, or whether to partition it in two, creating the breakaway Muslim-majority state of Pakistan to the north.

As Mountbatten struggles to square the demands of Hindu leaders Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) with their pro-Pakistan rival Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), sectarian violence explodes across India, killing thousands. The Viceroy is forced to accelerate his independence plan by almost a year in the hope of minimizing further bloodshed. A London lawyer who has never set foot in India before, Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), is hastily summoned to begin mapping out the new frontier between these two embryonic nations, a contentious process that remains inflammatory to this day.

Meanwhile, among Mountbatten's army of domestic staff, handsome young Hindu Jeet (Indian-American rising star Manish Dayal) and his beautiful Muslim sweetheart Aalia (Delhi native Huma Qureshi) are engaged in the first flushes of an illicit romance that, somewhat predictably, mirrors the religious tensions outside the palace gates.

Drenched in a syrupy score by double Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R. Rahman, Viceroy's House promises a lavish banquet of spicy dramatic material, but somehow ends up lukewarm and flavorless. Every character feels like a brittle caricature defined solely by their position in a simplistic schema that pits Brits against Indians, Hindus against Muslims, rulers against ruled. The nuance and texture of real life have no place in this reductive history lesson. The Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Jeet and Aaliah feels particularly stilted, steeped in more corny cliches and convenient coincidences than any Bollywood fantasy.

Bonneville is always an affable screen presence, but his beefy frame is a very poor physical match for the lean, tall, patrician Mountbatten. Anderson does a more persuasive impression of Edwina, though her cut-glass English accent occasionally slips into strangulated parody. But the weakest element of all is the tone-deaf dialogue, an ungainly mix of leaden literalism and trite melodrama: "We came here to give India her freedom, not tear her apart!"

Given its personality-driven focus, Viceroy's House also makes some oddly coy omissions from the public record. The real Mountbatten and his wife both had other lovers, especially the wildly promiscuous Edwina, including a well-publicized affair with Nehru. Meanwhile, Jinnah was secretly dying of tuberculosis as he fought for partition. Juicy subplots that could have altered the course of history are strangely overlooked.

One intriguing detail that Chadha and her screenwriters do tackle is recently unearthed evidence that Winston Churchill secretly drew up partition plans long before Mountbatten, in a bid to protect British oil interests and insulate India against Soviet interference. This teasing historical footnote is briefly addressed, but never fully explored. Churchill's poisonous relationship with India would make an interesting stand-alone film, but a much darker one than this.

In its favor, Viceroy's House does look magnificent, with some scenes shot inside the opulent grounds of the real palace itself — now renamed the Rashtrapati Bhavan, or presidential residence. The rich ensemble cast is also graced with reliable old-timers including Michael Gambon and the late Om Puri, who died in January. These are classy ingredients, but not enough to save Chadha's polite period pageant from sinking into soggy soap opera. It's a missed opportunity.

Production companies: Reliance, Bend It Films
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Om Puri, Michael Gambon, Neeraj Kabi, Denzil Smith, Tanveer Ghani, Simon Callow, Lily Travers
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Screenwriters: Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini
Cinematographer: Ben Smithard
Editors: Victoria Boydell, Valerio Bonelli
Music: A.R. Rahman
Production designer: Laurence Dorman
Costumes: Keith Madden
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (out of competition)
Sales company: Pathe

106 minutes