Review: Viceroy’s House

Given the casting of Hugh Bonneville in the role of Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India before independence, it’s easy to guess that the producers wanted direct comparisons between this dramatic recreation of the summer of 1947 and Downton Abbey, though it more rightly resembles Upstairs/Downstairs in its contrast between the political machinations of the British overlords and the romantic goings-on among the servants in the titular establishment.

But to say that selling point does a disservice to the historical magnitude of the subsequent partition that created Pakistan and forever plunged the subcontinent into lethal, genocidal squabbling is perhaps too much. For sure, the complications of the deal have been filtered down into a cynical play for post-colonial “security” on the part of the British, which, while true up to a point seem here more informed by dramatic stimulation than accuracy. More troubling is using the forbidden love between a Hindu valet (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim secretary (Huma Qureshi) to represent the tragedy of partition in a dull, hackneyed way that has more to do with Bollywood than the Merchant-Ivory quality drama model that writer-director Gurinder Chadha obviously had in mind. Mountbatten and his idealistic wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), are also perhaps too on-the-nose sympathetic to make you believe things happened the way they did. When Edwina summarily fires a middle-aged career female English servant for complaining that a native servant is “standing too close,” you know character development is not one of Chadha’s strong points. Similarly, Michael Gambon’s British government fixer practically announces himself as the fly in the post-independence ointment as soon as he shows up scowling and genuflecting. Gandhi and Nehru and Jinnah are stock players asked to play gods and don’t quite get it.

But, of course, if you really want to know what happened, you should read a good history book. (My recommendation: Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann) Viceroy’s House, despite its exaggerations and romantic affectations, will at least suffice in conveying the magnitude of bad colonial practice, no matter how well-meaning (Dickie’s motives are the purest). One might call it the ultimate cautionary tale except that Britain subjugated the sub-continent for three whole centuries. Suffering and stupidity are inevitable.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Viceroy’s House home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Pathe Productions Ltd., Reliance Big Entertainment (US) Inc., British Broadcasting Corporation, The British Film Institute and Bend It Films Ltd. 2016

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