The resplendent Viceroy’s House was the impressive residence of the Viceroy’s of India and is now known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence) and is the official home of the President of India. Overwhelmed at the 340-room house, Lady Edwina Mountbatten comments that “it makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”. As it is this grand structure is the only impressive aspect of this movie that follows the efforts of the last Viceroy of India to oversee a peaceful transition of British India to independence.
Rather than focus the film on the efforts of Lord Mountbatten, his wife Edwina and daughter Pamela to negotiate a peaceful settlement between irresolute factions of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus director Chadha introduces a meaningless love triangle to expose differing beliefs and customs. While this works in providing a light-hearted distraction from the duplicitous negotiations underway the resolution to this love story turns what could have been an intelligent depiction of partition into farce. So unbelievable was this ending that it had me groaning into a bucket of popcorn.
The film’s only saving grace is three exemplary performances from Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten, an imperious yet compassionate Gillian Anderson as his wife Edwina and Michael Gamdon as the duplicitous General Hastings Ismay. Bonneville must be used to such roles having spent many years at Downton Abbey. He pulls off the role well even though his oval face and rotund frame bears little resemblance to the real Louis Mountbatten, who had a more angular, lithe appearance. Anderson fares better as Lady Edwina, again a role she is now used to having portrayed several upper-class ladies such as Lady Deadlock (Bleak House) and Lily Bart (The House of Mirth). What is interesting is that Edwina has more understanding of the political nuances of the situation that her husband who admits he is more a military man that politician. Even so, when Edwina questions her husband’s decisions and suggests other alternatives to the decisions being made she is quickly put in her place. Chadha would have done well to reveal more of the intricate power play between Mountbatten and his wife than dwell so much on the love affair between Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal) and Aalia Noor (Huma Kureshi).
Visually cinematographer Ben Smithard captured the grandeur of Viceroy House and contrasts this nicely with scenes of poverty and deprivation as millions of Indian people are displaced through partition. The screenplay fails to imbue the narrative with any real emotion or character depth which is a shame, particularly as director Chadha’s grandmother was herself caught up in events, a fact noted at the end of the movie. This is a film that had so much potential but that lacks the drama and passion of India’s history.