Gurinder Chadha’s films are typically concerned with the experiences of Indians living in England. In Viceroy’s House, she inverts her own convention to focus on the last English Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, in his struggle to attain peace in a conflicted nation.
Set in 1947, as the British imperial rule is ending, the film centres around the challenges faced in the transferral of power back to India, and the events that preceded the consequent partition of India into two separate nations. As the discussions regarding who should assume power play out, we witness the growing tensions between the Indian employees in the Viceroy’s service; through which Chadha gives us an insight into the religious and ideological conflict that was tearing the country apart outside the walls of the house.
Repeatedly our attention is drawn to the underlying deceit within the negotiation procedures, and Hugh Bonneville is undoubtedly effective in his portrayal of the Viceroy as a well-intentioned statesman, who unwillingly becomes the figurehead of a corrupt plan. It is, however, disappointing to see Bonneville deliver such a similar performance as in Downton Abbey; yet again assuming the role of the upper-class patriarch. The Viceroy is repeatedly praised in the film for his charisma, that he could ‘charm a vulture off a corpse’ and, yet, Bonneville seems overly stoic throughout. With little variation from his portrayal of Lord Grantham, one might begin to question his ability to divert from this character profile.
Comedic moments give brief respite from the serious nature of the film, but can sometimes seem out of place by reducing the poignancy of an important moment; most notably so when one of the Viceroy’s right-hand men states that the religiously charged, aggressive environment in the house is “worse than Glasgow on a Saturday night”.
Overall, however, this is an emotionally affecting film. It sheds light on a national crisis, with its many atrocities, that is rarely talked about. And now, in a time when conflict and refugee crises are ever-present, this film seems especially pertinent.
Image: Scott Dexter