To begin at the very end, the closing credits of “Viceroy’s House” bear a detailed dedication to a woman who survived the devastating upheaval of the 1947 Partition of India, was forced to trek a vast distance from her home to the newly founded Muslim republic of Pakistan, and was finally reunited with her eventual husband in a refugee camp. The woman in question, it turns out, is director Gurinder Chadha’s grandmother, and her story is evidently a remarkable one — so one can’t help but wish that Chadha had elected to tell it directly in this stiff historical dramatization of events leading to the Partition. Instead, “Viceroy’s House” clumsily merges a waxworks biographical study of Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, the last viceroy and vicereine appointed to oversee the British handover of India, with a passionless Romeo-and-Juliet romance between two of their servants caught in the fray.
Neither of these potentially complicated half-narratives is developed beyond the most superficial of strokes: Intended to intersect to politically illustrative effect, they wind up alternately distracting attention from each other. Commercially, this hefty Anglo-Indian production may fall between two stools, pleasing neither the Bollywood audience targeted by its broad-brush love story, nor the English heritage contingent likely to turn up for Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson swanning about in crisply pressed colonial garb and veddy brittle accents as the Mountbattens. Such a sprawling, two-pronged saga may well have been better served in television miniseries format, though taken on those terms, “Viceroy’s House” would likely only aspire to the dramatic nuance and gravitas of ITV’s 1980s landmark “The Jewel in the Crown.”
At its best and most perceptive, Chadha’s film — certainly her most ambitious to date, dwarfing such cheap-and-cheerful successes as “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Bhaji on the Beach” in scale if not accomplishment — may resonate with British viewers as an indirect but timely echo of the political turmoil the U.K. is presently experiencing over its slipshod Brexit strategy, not to mention politicians’ insular response to the international refugee crisis.
Still, even the film’s portrayal of underhand Westminister double-dealing in the dying days of the British Raj is on the dry side, not helped by its dully noble, impersonal portrait of the Mountbattens themselves. Don’t look here for any dramatic insinuations of Louis’s alleged homosexuality; more bafflingly, Edwina’s notorious affair with India’s eventual first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), rates not so much as an allusion in Chadha’s screenplay, cumbersomely drawn from two historical studies with co-writers Moira Buffini and Paul Mayeda Berges. Aside from adding a dramatic frisson to heated stretches of political debate among Mountbatten, Nehru and Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (ensemble standout Denzil Smith), even a little of this shading-in might have given Anderson, ever a good sport, something to do besides complain tartly about the heat and blandly beseech her husband to do the right, liberal thing.
Instead, the film’s fully chaste romantic activity is fictitiously conducted between Jeet (Manish Dayal), an eager Hindu manservant newly employed at the Viceroy’s palatial estate, and his Muslim childhood friend Aalia (Huma Qureshi), from whom he has been long separated. Unexpectedly reunited, the pretty pair rekindle the flame, but she is already betrothed to another, while the looming threat of India’s Muslim-Hindu division threatens to keep them forever apart. (The late, great Om Puri puts in a thankless appearance as a further obstacle: her blind, infirm father.)
Intended to symbolically serve as the human faces of the Partition’s legacy of tragic social turbulence, these two wanly conceived characters simply aren’t up to it. Defined by no characteristics beyond their diverging religions and mutual purity, they’re soap-opera ciphers, required to demonstrate devotion principally by repeating each other’s names, and spouting such watery dialogue as, “Don’t run from what is true.” It’s advice that Chadha herself would have done well to heed. The director’s sincere personal investment in this vital chapter of history is quite apparent in “Viceroy’s House,” but beginning with her grandmother’s, there are countless authentic life stories from this period that could have given her commendably conscientious film more of an emotional spine.
Surprisingly, despite the airlessness of the drama, this otherwise handsome production could stand to be more stuffy. Heavy on elaborate, expensive-looking fittings and trimmings, for which production designer Laurence Dorman and costume designer Keith Madden can take a joint bow, the film wants for palpable, perspiration-soaked atmosphere in Ben Smithard’s bright lensing or the tidy sound design. A.R. Rahman’s grandiloquent, hard-working score, on the other hand, could hardly be less tidy — but is chasing a saturated romanticism that “Viceroy’s House” otherwise doesn’t muster.