Gurinder Chadha’s “Viceroy’s House” does a good job of telling its story, but doesn’t do such a great job of making you feel its story.
“Viceroy’s House” tells the tale of how post-World War II India emerged from British rule and separated into two nations, triggering a massive migration. The story is centered in Delhi, at the home of the British Viceroy.
At the beginning of the film, in 1847, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) has just arrived to become what is being heralded as the final British Viceroy over India. After three centuries of British rule, India is to be granted independence, and Lord Mountbatten and his family are to oversee what they hope will be a peaceful transition.
Lady Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson), in particular, is determined to show respect to the country and make sure it is left in good hands. But soon the Lord and Lady find that the peaceful transition will be anything but. While the Indian people are anxious for independence, they are also divided among themselves, and the differences among factions are becoming violent.
This internal dynamic is represented on film by a number of characters who work on the Viceroy’s staff. Jeet Kumar (“The Hundred Foot Journey’s” Manish Dayal) is a Hindu from Punjab who is anxious to send off the British occupation. He is also in love with Lady Mountbatten’s assistant Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi), the betrothed Muslim daughter of Ali Rahim Noor (Om Puri), a former prisoner Jeet befriended when he worked as a police guard.
Jeet and Aalia are a kind of Romeo and Juliet, struggling to bridge a cultural gap that foreshadows a very divided India. In various scenes, we see Indian leaders working with Lord Mountbatten to make arrangements for the transfer of power. But while Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) have hopes for a unified India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) has demanded a separate nation — Pakistan — for Muslims, and Lord Mountbatten comes to realize there are forces in his own government that support the schism.
Chadha does her best to toggle between a storyline that follows the political intrigue of the negotiations and a dramatic storyline that puts a human face on the people’s personal struggle. In 106 minutes, Chadha takes what could easily be a sweeping epic and streamlines it into a film that does a little bit of everything but doesn’t do too much of anything.
For Chadha, the effort is a labor of love, as the closing credits reveal a personal connection to a true story that inspired Jeet and Aalia’s subplot. But its on-screen treatment still feels too scant to fully realize the struggle of India’s separation, which largely happens off-screen and far away from the creature comforts of the Viceroy’s home.
Even in a diluted form, “Viceroy’s House” will provoke thought, especially from American audiences familiar with their own Civil War in the 19th century and heated political divisions in recent years. For those patient enough to stick with it, “Viceroy’s House” will spark the mind, but it strains to touch the heart.
“Viceroy’s House” is not rated but would probably be rated PG or PG-13; running time: 106 minutes.