Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon
In 1947 Lord Mountbatten (Bonneville) is appointed as the final Viceroy of India and tasked with the job of overseeing the transition of India regaining its Independence. However, with mounting tensions between India’s various religious groups causing increasing violence, his task is a seemingly impossible one.
Sometimes it is quite clear from the offset what type of film we are in for from the cast, and the fact Viceroy’s House stars Sunday Tea Time TV favourite Hugh Bonneville basically tells us all we need to know. This is a glossy and rather safe account of a very important and tragic piece of recent history, with a clear focus group-led narrative aimed at the Downton Abbey demographic that treads carefully not to ever take much of a risk.
I am of course no expert on the events that take place within the narrative and cannot say exactly what is fact and fiction, and I am sure there are people far more qualified than myself to tear apart the films creative treatment of history. However, its choice of dialogue, narrative developments, characters and cast make it quite obvious that this is a film that wants to stay firmly perched on the middle of the road.
There is no denying the Gurinder Chadha has an obvious passion for the subject matter; the significant importance of the events of the narrative and their raw power and tragedy are still very much obvious throughout, and this alone certainly makes the film watchable enough. However, the film is often deeply patronising to the audience in the way it tells us about what happened. We occasionally get shown brief news footage of violence and massacres that occurred, and then stuffy Englishman discuss that it is a bad thing, usually with dialogue that contains clichéd sound bites. However, Viceroy’s House never wants to then go one step further and use the raw power of these true events to analyse themes and make the audience think. It of course should not just be harrowing for the sake of it, but this film does just feel like all surface, with no real substance underneath.
It is of course right and proper that this film has Indian characters, but they are depicted in such a neat and tidy, and very patronising way. The two main native characters, a Hindu man (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim woman (Huma Qureshi) unfortunately are victims of the accountant inspired tick-box narrative and some painfully cringe-inducing subplots. Of course, every single native character speaks perfectly fluent English to one another in every single scene, even when discussing the most private or personal subjects to one another.
Meanwhile the two main characters of Lord and Lady Mountbatten are played with the stereotypical stiff upper lip; Hugh Bonneville seems to play it too safe and lacks the presence or urgency necessary (considering what his character must deal with), but then the script and film’s tone would suggest that he was probably directed to very much play his character this way. Gillian Anderson also overdoes it a little bit, and her character seems to have way too many clichéd and politically correct characteristics, which only adds to the overall feeling of contrivance.
Visually, Viceroy’s House is very well put together, with Ben Smithard’s luscious, sun-drenched cinematography being a stand out. However, there is no getting away from the fact that this does just feel like a Sunday evening TV Drama and does not do enough to justify being seen at the cinema – and not just because it stars Hugh Bonneville!
Now, Viceroy’s House will probably do very well at the British box office due to its slightly cynical approach, and for of its faults is a perfectly watchable experience. Though the film itself may be rather forgettable, its subject matter has enough raw, natural power that there are certain elements that may well stay with the viewer. Of course, any film would struggle to depict the events of this moment of history in just 106 minutes, but Viceroy’s House intends to play its own depiction very safely indeed.
A glossy, televisual and very middle of the road telling of an extremely tragic moment in post-world war history; Viceroy’s House, though perfectly watchable, just keeps things way too fluffy, light and safe to have any real impact.