While some may see it as little more than a colonial Downton Abbey, Gurinder Chadha’s retelling of the Indian Partition is smart, solid and weirdly prescient.
Hugh Bonneville plays lovable toff Dickie Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, appointed by King George V to oversee the peaceful transfer of power from Britain to India.
As starched and white as his imperial uniform, Bonneville puts his mawkish charm to good use, playing Mountbatten as a kindly and intelligent peacemaker.
Tasked with mediating India’s Hindu and Muslim elite, Dickie is aided by his wife Edwina, played with palpable plumminess by Gillian Anderson.
Anderson is a joy to watch and seems to take real delight in chewing her way through the film’s lavish scenery.
Foregrounding the film’s politics is the story of star-crossed lovers Aalia and Jeet.
Jeet is a Hindu and Aalia a Muslim. Both work for the Mountbatten family, and fall in love as their communities grow increasingly divided.
The romance illustrates, albeit simplistically, the consequences of the mounting division in the Viceroy’s House and beyond, bringing the story down to a personal level.
Viceroy’s House is gripping and well-made, and its underlying message – that ‘division creates havoc, not peace’, seems as relevant today as during its 1940s setting.
For all its good intentions, however, Viceroy’s House is too fussy a film to convey much emotion.
Mountbatten’s umming and ahhing takes centre stage, while the escalating violence that spreads throughout the fracturing nation is left to smoulder in the background.
And while the film may glance with a wince at the atrocities of colonial occupation, it quickly refocuses on its love story and the sumptuousness of its titular location.
You are left with the uncomfortable feeling that, at its heart, the film has reduced one of the seminal events of modern history to the story of a paternal Brit swooping in to resolve a petty dispute between the squabbling children of India.
The Mountbattens and their staff are faced with horrors that are both raw and immediate, but all are approached with a patently British stiff upper lip and a determination “not to let the side down.”
This makes it hard to engage when, in the last 15 minutes, we are bombarded with troubling images, only too familiar today, of mass migration, displacement and death.
A prim and proper crowd-pleaser, Viceroy’s House is a film that wears its heart on its very well-dressed sleeve – it’s just a shame that’s all it does.