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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Viceroy's House

**½ (out of ****)

“History is written by the victors,” exclaims Viceroy’s House, before telling the story of the partition between India and Pakistan from the point-of-view of the British ruling class. One can detect the relevance of such a story in a time when the leadership of another powerful republic is calling for a border wall as a negotiated solution to a problem that would be exponentially increased by the construction of that wall. For India, the problem was a similar one, as ideological division between Sikhs and Muslims often led to violence. For Britain, though, the problem was of the practical sort. That kind of concern seems secondary, does it not?

Co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha’s film is similarly conflicted. On one hand, it wants to relay the facts of the build-up to and the consequences of the construction of that border line. It does so by using its characters, who are, of course, based upon real people, to relay a lot of expository information through dialogue. It isn’t enormously illuminating to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history of British rule: England has announced they will leave India after several centuries, and the process to transfer power is interrupted by a plan to shave off a portion of India into another country that would come to be known as Pakistan.

Overseeing that process is Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), Viscount and cousin to the king, who has been appointed the last viceroy to India. He shuttles off to the country with wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), rubs shoulders with English officials (played variously by Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Simon Williams, and David Hayman) who sometimes exercise undue authority in the process, and mediate the discussion between warring leaders in the country, Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), who evangelize fundamentally different solutions to the chaos of weekly massacres.

On the other hand, Chadha’s screenplay, co-written by Paul Mayeda Burges and Moira Buffini and based on a pair of nonfiction books on the subject (Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by Narendra Singh Sarila), concerns itself on the sidelines with a romance that never quite connects to the central narrative, even with a climax that places the participants in the direct path of the partition. Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal) was once a police officer with Afghanistan forces, and Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi) was the daughter of a prisoner in Jeet’s jail. Unspoken passions lay between the two, and potential tragedy is an inevitability in their future.

It’s unclear what purpose the subplot serves beyond the basic fact that real people were forever impacted by the partition between the two countries. The facts of the story itself would be enough, and indeed, the film’s strongest segments are in the discussions among government officials about all these notions. Viceroy’s House is distracted, though, by the need to frame this story with the machinations of a romantic subplot and with presenting the fate of a people as a cheap twist involving a traitor in Mountbatten’s midst. It results in a confusion of purpose of its own.
(Review by Joel Copling)

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