Seventy years after the Partition of India, director Gurinder Chadha delivers this poignant tribute to the millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims – including members of her own family – who were uprooted or killed in what remains the largest mass migration of people in history.
Hugh Bonneville gets top billing as the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, whose onerous task it is to see the country’s “peaceful” transition to independence with the end of British rule.
The story is divided between him, his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and his young servant, Jeet (Manish Dayal). Together they draw a neat picture of the existing class structure within the microcosm of the (albeit vast) household.
However, trying to give equal weight to different points of view has its drawbacks and robs the story of some depth.
Bonneville plays Mountbatten with what comes across as foolish dignity because this account (co-scripted by Chadha with Moira Buffini and Paul Mayeda Berges) sees him as a bit of a patsy, cornered into brokering the deal that would divide India and create Pakistan upon Britain’s withdrawal.
Bonneville’s portrayal remains sympathetic throughout. As sectarian violence increases, he is exasperated by Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) who insists his people will be massacred without borders to protect them. And even his wife believes there must be an alternative to carving up the territory.
Edwina is eager to engage with the locals too, but Anderson is so mannered in her portrayal it is difficult to warm to her (“It’s so terribly, terribly hot…”) – a sharp contrast with Bonneville’s easy charm.
Jeet is the ostensible hero of the piece, rooting for a united India and eavesdropping on Mountbatten’s meetings with the likes of Jinnah, eventual Indian Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and the revered Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi). One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is being a fly on the wall at these talks, along with a suggestion that important decisions are made even deeper in the shadows.
There are others among the Viceroy’s staff who would prefer to have their own Muslim state, and so the fighting that rages on in the villages begins to cause unrest in the house. There is a star-crossed romance, too, with Jeet pining for fellow house help Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim girl who believes their love cannot withstand societal pressures.
The late Om Puri is underused as Aalia’s father, but his being wise and blind is another cliché in what feels like a tokenistic love story that is resolved rather questionably when the movement of people finally gets underway in August 1947.
Chadha uses snippets of archive footage to hint at the appalling humanitarian disaster that ensues, but all the bloodshed, rape and child murder is nudged into the background. Jeet fears for his family in the Punjab, but no time has been spent drawing those relationships, and with a reliance on black-and-white newsreel, the full horror of Partition stays remote.
Fortunately, Dayal gives an impassioned performance – especially upon receiving some bad news – that goes some way towards bridging the emotional gaps in the story. Bonneville, too, is given room to convey something like regret beyond the stiff upper lip that he must present in public, and he does that without slipping too far into sentimentality.
While the film might have gone further in laying bare the true scale of the political subterfuge and the upheaval it caused, it is refreshingly blunt about a period of history often viewed through a rose-tinted lens. Everyone has blame to bear – some more than others – and Chadha isn’t afraid to share it out.
Viceroy’s House is released in cinemas on Friday 3 March
Order your copy of the Radio Times Guide to Films 2017