The very premise of “Viceroy’s House” invites cynicism. Set during the 1947 Partition of India, in which the reluctantly departing British colonial rulers cleaved the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, the period drama focuses on the good intentions and imperial beauty of the English leadership’s last few months.
Historians estimate that the Partition led to between 200,000 and 2 million dead, as well as between 10 million and 20 million displaced. But director Gurinder Chadha (“It’s a Wonderful Afterlife,” “Bend It Like Beckham”) attempts to explore the cataclysmic human costs of the Partition without humanizing any of the Indian characters. And so we’re offered, on the 70th anniversary of the Partition (give or take a couple of weeks), another film about how brown suffering makes nice white people sad. The cynicism is well-earned.
The real-life Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten was dubbed “Glamour Boy” by one American general and nicknamed “The Master of Disaster” after driving a British warship into another U.K. vessel. Given 15 or so months to oversee Indian independence — an event that would affect the lives of one-fifth of the world’s population — he sped up the timeline to five months after his plane landed in New Delhi. For no reason that I can discern, Chadha and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges (“Bride and Prejudice”) and Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”) seek to rescue the reputation of this man from history’s opprobrium — and they bungle that, too.
“Viceroy’s House” opens with a montage of dozens of servants wordlessly cleaning the 300-room colonial palace that serves as the film’s inspiration. Men and women in colorful, impeccable uniforms sweep the walls, dust the picture frames, and wipe down the animal hides on the wall in scenes that function as an aesthetic apologia for British rule. Most of the servants are faceless, but two are not: Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal, “Marvel’s Agents of Shield”) and Muslim Aalia (an evocatively sloe-eyed Huma Qureshi, “Gangs of Wasseypur”).
The contrived melodrama between the star-crossed lovers — a wooden plotline that also features the late Indian acting legend Om Puri in a tiny role as Aalia’s father — exemplifies the film’s lack of imagination. The metaphor of Partition as a boyfriend and girlfriend torn apart is condescending, unmoving and wholly inadequate.
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So that’s the downstairs. Upstairs, Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville, “Downton Abbey”) and his relatively enlightened wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), quote Churchill to each other by describing the viceroy’s duty as “the worst job in the world.” (Somewhere in the palace, the servant who cleans out their chamber pots raises an objection.) “The British empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth,” Edwina sighs about Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) — remember, she’s the less racist one — in the kind of line whose casual disdain the filmmaker doesn’t seem to recognize as such. We’re meant to applaud as the ostensibly open-minded Edwina opts for an Indian chef instead of an English one.
The film’s historical revisionism extends to Dickie and Edwina’s marriage, which is recast from an estranged, open union to a nearly sitcom-perfect one between Dumb, Uxorious Husband and Smart, Supportive Wife. In the least likely moment between the Mountbattens, Edwina becomes righteously angry, in Ivanka levels of presumptuousness, because her husband has made a decision about India’s future without consulting her. (Again, we’re supposed to be impressed by her “feminist” gumption here.)
Skulking around the palace is General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), who attempts to quell the emerging hostility among the servants as they overhear the colonial lords’ plans to rive India. Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani, “The Royals”), India’s first prime minister, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith, “The Lunchbox”), Pakistan’s founder, argue about the best course of action for their own constituents. The debates aren’t particularly involving despite the nonstop dispatches about massacres across the country.
Despite his protagonist status, Mountbatten never evolves past a collection of quirks, and he ultimately stands by while history is made by others. And that’s not a terribly engaging point of view around which to base a film.
Then, in the drama’s third act, Chadha switches gears to sharply but dryly denounce the British Empire. The resulting picture is a schizophrenic mess: A sop to the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” set that prioritizes the POV of Well Meaning White People that tacks on a political-economic analysis of burgeoning Cold War policies. It’s a custard-flavored rice pudding confetti’d with shredded-up newspaper. At least the film gets one thing right: “Mountbatten” is terribly fun to say in an overly foppish accent.
“Viceroy’s House” concludes with an autobiographical note about Chadha’s family’s experiences during the Partition. It lasts for just a few seconds, but it’s more stirring than just about anything in the previous 106 minutes. And it’s an important reminder that we need to think up new ways to memorialize important global events beyond terribly conceived features that trivialize that history.